Washington is turning attention to New York in anticipation of the appearance of former US President Donald Trump before the court next Tuesday, to face an indictment that has not yet been disclosed, and Al Jazeera Net offers 6 basic questions about the upcoming trial.
Prosecutors in New York charged Trump with buying the silence of actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign.
What is Trump accused of?
While the exact charges are currently confidential, prosecutors have concluded that they can prove a criminal case against Trump for paying actress Stormy Daniels $130,<> in exchange for covering up an affair she says she had with him, and Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen arranged for her to be paid.
Trump insisted in April 2018 that he knew nothing about the payment, but Cohen presented Congress with a series of photos of checks Trump signed for him.
Cohen says there were at least two checks paid while Trump was in the White House, adding that Trump and his company concealed the purpose of the payments by falsely labeling them as legal expenses.
Under New York state law, concealing such payments in corporate records is a crime, while only a misdemeanor, or for violating campaign finance laws, constitutes a felony and becomes a felony if the forged business records are intended to conceal another crime, in this case financing the Trump presidential campaign in alleged violation of campaign finance laws.
After months of demands, the money was transferred to Daniels' lawyers on October 27, 2016, just days before the 2016 presidential election.
Judge Juan Merchán presides over Trump's trial in New York (Reuters)
What are the potential gaps in the prosecution case?
It is difficult to assess the case against Trump without knowing the exact charges or all the evidence that prosecutors have mustered during the investigation that lasted more than 4 years, but based on the information available so far, legal experts have identified several features of the case that may constitute a stumbling block as prosecutors seek a guilty verdict.
First of all, the credibility of Michael Cohen, on whom the prosecutor relies, as he provided much of the evidence and testimony necessary to file the case, is weak and questionable, especially since he pleaded guilty in 2018 to 9 felonies and was sentenced to 3 years in federal prison, and he also repeatedly expressed extreme bitterness towards Trump, and regretted the time he spent as his lawyer.
The case dates back to 2016, i.e. more than 5 years have passed, and the statute of limitations in New York for most felonies is 5 years, but there are some exceptions to this period, such as if the defendant lives outside the state.
Another potential difficulty prosecutors may have to prove that Trump knew the arrangements were illegal, and Trump could argue that he assumed Cohen, as a lawyer, was legally executing payments and related paperwork.
Will Trump be detained or remain free during the deliberations of the case?
It will be up to the discretion of New York Court Judge Juan Merchan, but prosecutors seem unlikely to seek to detain the former president or restrict his travel within the United States while the case is pending, as there is no legal impediment preventing him from continuing his campaign for the presidential election scheduled for the end of 2024 while facing criminal charges or even if he is sentenced to prison.
If Trump wins the presidency while facing charges or conviction, the legal aspects become more ambiguous, and there are serious constitutional questions about whether a state court can bar a person elected to federal office from serving, when the Constitution does not.
How will the indictment affect the ongoing investigation of Trump?
There is no reason to believe that the indictment in Manhattan will affect the course of many other investigations that pose an acute risk of further criminal charges against Trump, and a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia, is considering his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in that state, and at the federal level, Special Counsel Jack Smith is leading two double investigations into Trump's role in the January 2021, <> attack on the Capitol and his retention of government documents after his presidency.
Officially, a federal criminal case against Trump, if filed, would allow federal prosecutors to take precedence over any domestic case or cases.
Simultaneous criminal proceedings against Trump will inevitably cause some logistical problems, but federals and local prosecutors usually try to resolve any logistical disputes.
How long will it take to bring Trump to trial?
It will take several months to start the trial, and even if both sides are eager to proceed with the trial quickly, the settlement of legal and constitutional issues is likely to extend over the next year and into the 2024 primary season.
Add to that Trump's penchant, in almost every legal matter in which he is involved, to seek to delay and prolong proceedings whenever possible.
Trump's lawyer could try to take the case to a federal court, arguing that at least some of Cohen's payments occurred when Trump was president, and therefore the state court should not have the authority to rule on the legality of these practices, and Trump may also seek to move the trial to a different court elsewhere in New York state, and he can try to drop or reduce the indictment.
A criminal tax case brought by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office against the Trump Organization in the same court in 2021 took about 15 months to reach a verdict, and a jury convicted two Trump companies on all criminal charges on Dec. 17.
Could Trump end up serving a prison sentence?
If the case ends with Trump being convicted as a misdemeanor, falsification of business records is punished for up to a year behind bars, but if it is brought to a felony, Trump could face up to 4 years in prison.
But in both cases, a prison sentence will not be mandatory, and a judge can also sentence Trump to probation, a fine or community service, and often a person is not imprisoned if his conviction in a non-violent case is the first in his history, but it remains that the judge may prefer for symbolic reasons to imprison Trump in defense of the principle that "Trump is not above the law."