A grand jury is hearing evidence in New York over former U.S. president Donald Trump’s role in hush-money payments to adult film performer Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
A grand jury could lay the groundwork for possible criminal charges against Trump by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
This would be a stunning development — no former president has been indicted for criminal conduct. Even the sitting of the grand jury represents a dramatic turn in a case that appeared settled with Trump’s former personal attorney serving a prison sentence and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) opting not to pursue any penalty.
Former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker has testified before the grand jury, one source told Reuters. Pecker was seen entering the lower Manhattan building where the grand jury is empanelled, according to the New York Times, which first reported on the grand jury on Monday.
The moves are an indication that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is closer to a decision on whether to charge Trump.
Pecker could not immediately be reached for comment.
Bragg’s office declined to comment to the Times.
Shifting statements from Trump on payment
Daniels said she had a sexual liaison with the married Trump in 2006, later detailed in her book Full Disclosure, and received $130,000 US before the 2016 presidential election in exchange for not discussing it.
Trump denies the affair and first told reporters he knew nothing about a payment to Daniels. Trump then backtracked on that claim, acknowledging on Twitter in May 2018 that he repaid Michael Cohen, his personal attorney.
WATCH l Former Trump attorney Cohen testifies in 2019 on hush-money payments:
Trump said the money “had nothing to do with the campaign.” Trump said Cohen received a monthly retainer, which he used to pay Daniels to sign an agreement not to talk about her allegations and “stop the false and extortionist accusations made by her about an affair.”
Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in federal court in New York in large part for orchestrating hush payments to Daniels, as well as to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also said she had a months-long affair with Trump before he took office.
Cohen had testified to Congress that Trump was aware of the payments, and that some of the cheques were endorsed by Donald Trump Jr., a member of the Trump Organization, and Allen Weisselberg, the company’s chief financial officer.
McDougal has said she sold her story for $150,000 to American Media Inc (AMI), but it was never published. The incident involved a practice known as “catch and kill” to prevent a potentially damaging article from being published.
Pecker, AMI’s former chief executive officer and a longtime friend of Trump and Cohen, told prosecutors of their hush-money deals with McDougal and Daniels, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2018.
Cohen could be problematic star witness
Cohen told The Associated Press he recently met with Manhattan prosecutors for 2½ hours. Some legal experts have previously told CBC News and the AP that pursuing a criminal case against Trump based largely on the word of Cohen, a convicted felon who has attacked Trump with relish, including on Monday, could pose a challenge.
Bragg’s predecessor as district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., also examined the hush-money payments before shifting the probe’s focus to the Trump Organization’s tax and business practices.
The Trump Organization was convicted last month of tax fraud and fined $1.6 million as punishment for an unrelated scheme in which top executives dodged personal income taxes on lavish job perks.
“With the trial having ended, we are now moving on to the next chapter,” Bragg told The Associated Press in an interview after the trial.
The Trump Organization in a statement on Monday suggested that Bragg, a Democrat, was trying to undermine Trump’s fledgling 2024 presidential campaign, calling it “simply reprehensible and vindictive.”
In 2021, the FEC had closed its inquiry into the matter after a deadlocked vote.
Edwards case could be instructive
The National Enquirer’s treatment of Trump contrasts with another case that illustrated the difficulty of prosecuting a high-profile politician and seating an impartial jury.
The Enquirer published a 2007 article alleging that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was engaged in an affair. At that point, the candidate and his wife, Elizabeth, had received sympathetic coverage as she had announced she was facing another cancer battle.
Federal prosecutors in the ensuing years alleged Edwards masterminded a plan to use money from two wealthy donors to hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He could have faced up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.
Edwards did not testify at his 2012 trial and was acquitted of a charge of accepting illegal campaign contributions. The jury was deadlocked on other counts, and prosecutors opted not to re-try him.
The case had seen the judge close the court to discuss unspecified issues with jurors. A number of alternate jurors had been wearing matching coloured shirts to court, and one of them was accused of openly flirting with Edwards.
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