The Manhattan District Attorney’s office on Tuesday unveiled charges against Donald Trump over hush money payments to suppress accounts of his alleged extramarital affairs, becoming the first former U.S. president to face criminal charges.
Below is an explanation of the charges he faces and his possible defenses:
Prosecutors led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Trump with 34 felony counts for falsifying business records related to a “catch-and-kill” scheme to suppress negative news stories about him ahead of the 2016 election.
During the campaign, Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to for her silence on an affair she says she had with Trump.
Trump denies the allegations and the affairs but has admitted to reimbursing Cohen for his payment to Daniels. He has called Bragg’s probe a politically motivated “witch hunt” and pleaded not guilty during his first court appearance Tuesday.
Taken together, the charges carry a maximum of 136 years in prison under New York law, but any prison sentence following a guilty verdict would almost certainly be far less than that. Trump would almost certainly appeal any conviction.
It is against New York state law to make a false entry in a company’s records. While falsification of business records on its own is a misdemeanor, meaning it is punishable by a sentence of less than one year, it is considered a felony punishable by up to four years in prison if it is done to conceal or further other crimes.
In this case, Bragg said those other crimes include alleged election law violations.
Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges of causing an unlawful campaign contribution and making an excessive campaign contribution tied to the scheme. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan has not charged Trump, who it referred to in its charging document against Cohen as “Individual-1,” with any crime.
Trump may argue that Cohen acted on his own when paying Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford. He may also argue that the purpose of silencing Daniels and McDougal was to spare him and his family the embarrassment of public attention to alleged extramarital affairs, not to help his campaign.
While Cohen testified in 2018 that Trump directed him to pay Daniels, Trump has repeatedly called Cohen a “liar” and could attempt to undermine Cohen’s credibility by pointing out that he has admitted to perjuring himself before Congress.
In an interview with Reuters in December 2018, Trump said the payment to Daniels “wasn’t a campaign contribution” and “there was no violation based on what we did.”
Joseph Tacopina, a lawyer for Trump, has argued in television interviews that Trump was a victim of extortion by Daniels. Trump has also said in a post on his Truth Social platform that the statute of limitations – generally five years in New York – has run out.
While Cohen’s history of lies could provide fertile ground for Trump’s lawyers on cross-examination should he testify at an eventual trial, Cohen has already been sentenced and served time.
That could blunt any attempt by Trump to argue that Cohen is falsely implicating him to try to win a lenient sentence, a common argument criminal defendants make against cooperating witnesses.
Trump’s claim that Daniels was extorting him may not be relevant to the case because the charge focuses on his company’s false accounting of the payments as legal expenses.
The statute of limitations is unlikely to be an issue, as it does not count time a defendant spends living outside New York state. Trump lived in Washington, D.C., while he was president and has lived in Florida since leaving office in 2021.