How the long-running hush money probe evolved as Manhattan DA Bragg nears possible indictment of Trump

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. - Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS

NEW YORK — More than four years after it was launched, the Manhattan district attorney’s long-lived criminal probe into Donald Trump is potentially about to produce the first criminal indictment ever filed against a former U.S. president.

District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office has been presenting evidence to a grand jury since January. The panel is believed to be hearing about the infamous $130,000 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an extramarital tryst with Trump.

Sources close to the probe say the DA is exploring whether Trump committed felony-level crimes in reimbursing his longtime fixer Michael Cohen for paying off Daniels on the eve of the 2016 presidential election to help secure the win. Cohen went to prison for the payoff, his federal case detailing how he executed it when Daniels was ready to go public with her allegations she slept with Trump in 2006 at a Lake Tahoe charity golf tournament.

Bragg’s office has remained tight-lipped on the confidential grand jury probe, and there is no telling whether the panel of New Yorkers will vote to indict Trump. The former president has speculated his arrest is imminent, but sources with direct knowledge say he had not been notified of any charges stemming from the ongoing investigation.

But Cohen’s recent testimony, an invitation to meet with the grand jury extended to Trump —which he declined — and prosecutors having interviewed Daniels, Kellyanne Conway, Hope Hicks and several Trump associates connected to the hush money deal have fueled speculation that the DA is on the verge of deciding whether to charge Trump.

The potential charges come after a long-running investigation exploring the hush money and Trump’s allegedly illegal business practices.

The expansive probe twice made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which shot down Trump both times, and branched off criminal tax fraud cases against the Trump Organization and its longtime finance chief Allen Weisselberg. The company was fined $1.6 million in January after its conviction at trial, and Weisselberg is serving a five-month jail term at Rikers.

Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., launched the investigation soon after Cohen’s 2018 federal conviction for tax evasion, making illegal campaign contributions and lying to Congress and a financial institution. After his guilty plea, Cohen continued to talk, showing lawmakers checks signed by Trump as reimbursement for paying off Daniels when he testified before the House Oversight committee.

During legal battles for Trump’s taxes, Vance’s office revealed the probe was also exploring Cohen’s allegations that Trump, for years, wildly manipulated the value of assets like golf clubs, resorts, and skyscrapers by hundreds of millions of dollars to score better loans and tax breaks.

The New York attorney general’s office ultimately brought the large-scale financial fraud case against Trump and his adult children, all executives in the company, in a $250 million civil lawsuit filed in September.

New York Attorney General Letitia James’ suit accuses Trump of overstating his net worth by more than a billion dollars and habitually engaging in rampant tax fraud, bank fraud and business fraud as head of the Trump Organization. James had two investigators embedded in the Manhattan DA’s probe.

Why Bragg chose to refocus on the most salacious element of the expansive probe — or if he abandoned other areas — remains to be seen.

When he took office at the start of 2022, the DA’s differing approach from his predecessor came under scrutiny when investigators hired by Vance quit in protest, alleging Bragg was refusing to authorize a Trump indictment despite evidence he’d broken the law.

Grand jury testimony is confidential, but the hush money deal has long been public knowledge. Per Cohen’s 2018 guilty plea, Trump directed him to pay off Daniels “for the principal purpose of influencing the election,” and Cohen took the money out of a home equity line of credit and wired it to Daniels through a shell company.

Trump got the bill after he became president, reimbursing Cohen with interest in monthly checks totaling $420,000 by the end of 2017, according to the feds’ case. Cohen then falsely invoiced the company for a “retainer agreement” that the Trump Organization falsely logged it in its books as “legal expenses.”

As Bragg came under pressure last spring to explain his strategies on the Trump probe, the DA insisted it remained alive and that he’d be forthcoming with the American people once a decision was made on whether to indict Trump.

“I unequivocally pledge that the Office will publicly state the conclusion of our investigation — whether we conclude our work without bringing charges, or move forward with an indictment,” Bragg said in April.

On Saturday, Trump said he expects that that conclusion might come as soon as this week, then called on supporters to “protest” his arrest.

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