Mar 20, 2023

The "imminent" Trump indictment.

The "imminent" Trump indictment.
Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

What is the case? And is it really happening?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Breaking down the alleged Trump indictment. Plus, a question about how much Europe is spending in Ukraine compared to us.


One of the most common questions I get in Tangle is "can you do more international news?" or "what about a Tangle for Country X?" While we focus primarily on politics in the United States, I am thrilled to announce a new partnership with DailyChatter, an international news organization built in the same ethos as Tangle. It's the most neutral, even-handed international round-up I've found, and one of the first reads for me every morning. You can try it for 2 weeks for free, and it's just $29.95 a year after that. 84% of all users who try DailyChatter for free stick around after their trial. Sign up here. So far, the feedback from Tangle readers has been great!

My most extreme...

On Friday, I wrote about my most extreme political position (subscribers only). As I expected, this piece drew a lot of supportive and critical feedback. I am planning to put some of it together in a document or as a newsletter to share with you all. Thank you to the many of you who wrote in with thoughtful feedback. I haven't gotten through all of it, but what I did read so far has been fascinating. You can read the piece here.

Quick hits.

  1. A new report presents the strongest evidence yet that Covid-19 originated in a wet market, linking the virus to raccoon dogs that were illegally sold in Wuhan. (The research)
  2. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, his fist visit to Ukraine since the war began. Separetly, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges. (The visit)
  3. Today marks the 20 year anniversary of the United States launching its ground invasion into Iraq, beginning the Iraq War. (The anniversary)
  4. Oil prices fell to their lowest levels in 15 months. (The prices)
  5. Swiss authorities persuaded UBS Group to purchase rival Credit Suisse Group as central banks try to calm fears of a wave of bank failures. (The purchase)

Today's topic.

The Trump indictment. On Saturday, former President Donald Trump claimed he is going to be arrested on Tuesday and called for supporters to protest on his behalf. Trump is currently under investigation by multiple agencies, but his post on Truth Social alleging an arrest was imminent appeared to be in reference to a New York grand jury investigation into hush money payments to women who say they had sexual encounters with the former president.

Trump's lawyer and spokesperson say there has not been any communication from prosecutors, but Trump said he expects to be taken into custody on Tuesday.

District Attorney Alvin Bragg is leading the investigation into the hush money payments, and recently interviewed adult film star Stormy Daniels. Trump is alleged to have paid Daniels $130,000 in 2016 through his former attorney Michael Cohen to keep her from publicly discussing their relationship. It’s unclear what specific crime Trump might be charged with, but it’s believed to be a campaign finance crime, as the alleged payoff would have been to influence the 2016 election, and therefore an undisclosed campaign contribution over the applicable limit of $2,700 per donor per election.

Cohen, often described as Trump's "fixer," pled guilty to campaign finance charges from his involvement in the payment to Daniels and another woman, Karen McDougal, and has already served a three year sentence, most of which was under home confinement. Cohen said under oath that the payments were directed by Trump, and that he was reimbursed for them as legal expenses. He was charged for making illegal, unreported payments that assisted in Trump’s campaign. Trump, who was married during the alleged relationship, has denied ever having affairs with Daniels as well as nearly all of Cohen’s claims, and has repeatedly called the allegations and investigation a witch hunt. It’s believed Bragg could also charge Trump for the crime of falsifying business records, which is a misdemeanor, but can be a felony if prosecutors show Trump was intending to commit fraud by covering up another crime.

The details of this story first came to light years ago, when Trump was serving as president, and the ensuing investigation has been subject to interruptions and public scrutiny ever since. At one point, two of the top prosecutors on the case quit. Now it appears to be gaining momentum. Bragg reportedly invited Trump to testify before the grand jury, which usually precedes an indictment.

You can find a full timeline of the story to this point here.

Shortly after Trump said he was going to be arrested, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would use House committees to “immediately investigate if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions.” Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has been critical of Trump in his 2024 campaign, called it "another politically charged prosecution." The Trump campaign criticized other Republicans, including Florida Governor and presumptive nominee Ron DeSantis, for remaining quiet on the issue.

Currently, Trump is being investigated by federal prosecutors over the January 6 riots; by the D.C. attorney general over financial fraud on the Presidential Inaugural Committee; by the Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney over criminal election interference in Georgia; by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over rules violations in his plans to take his social-media company public through a SPAC; and by the FBI and Justice Department over his handling of classified documents. The Congressional House Select Committee recently completed its investigation into his role in January 6.

Today, we're going to be taking a look at some reactions from the left and right to a potential indictment, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left is mixed about the looming indictment, insisting on Trump's guilt but unsure if charges will stick.
  • Some said Trump must be indicted to hold up the rule of law.
  • Others suggest a conviction may be difficult to land and could also prevent indictments on the more serious charges against Trump.

In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols said Trump is doing it again.

"Let us begin with the obvious thing that just happened: This morning, Donald Trump threatened to summon a mob—for the second time in two years—to his defense," Nichols said. "The former president of the United States and a leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the White House in 2024, facing a possible indictment in New York, claimed to know the exact day on which he would be arrested and then called on his supporters to 'protest.' Trump and his cult know what a call for 'protest' means: The last time he rallied his faithful supporters this way, they stormed the U.S. Capitol, which resulted in death and destruction and many, many prison sentences. Spokespeople from the former president’s office have already walked back Trump’s statement, noting that they have not been told of any specific date for an indictment or an arrest... Indeed, any attempt to book Trump is unlikely to happen as soon as Tuesday, for many reasons.

"But that’s not the point. Trump’s message today to the American people has already come through loud and clear: I am too dangerous to arrest. Despite my political feelings about Donald Trump, I am agnostic on whether he should be indicted and arrested for possible financial violations involved in the payoff to the porn star Stormy Daniels," Nichols wrote. "Personally, I have no doubt that he broke the law, and part of me is now growling that if you can get Al Capone for tax evasion instead of murder, file the tax case already. But as my colleague David Frum noted, juries tend to be forgiving of personal misdeeds by political leaders (shown, for example, by the 2011 acquittal of former Democratic Senator John Edwards), and the hush-money scandal is not the strongest possible case against Trump."

In The New York Times, Charles M. Blow said Trump must be prosecuted.

“Donald Trump may finally be indicted. Finally!" he said. "But there’s also hand-wringing: about whether this is the best case to be the first among those in which Trump is likely to be criminally charged, the strength of this case compared to others and the historic implications of indicting a former president for anything. And with regard to those implications, the central considerations always seem to be the importance of any precedent set by prosecuting a former president and the broader political significance — what damage it might do to the country. Often left out of that calculus, it seems to me, is the damage Trump has already done and is poised to continue to do.

“Prosecution is not the problem; Trump himself is,” Blow wrote. “And any pretense that the allegations of his marauding criminality are a sideshow to the political stakes and were, therefore, remedied in 2020 at the ballot box rather than in a jury box, is itself a miscarriage of justice and does incalculable damage... Any case against Trump must hang on the evidence and the principle that justice is blind. The political considerations, including gaming out what might be the ideal sequence of cases, across jurisdictions and by their gravity, only serve to distort the judicial process. The justice system must be untethered from political implications and consequences, even the possibility of disruptive consequences.”

In MSNBC, Jessica Levinson laid out the risks of indicting Trump on these charges.

"If New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicts Trump on charges related to his hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, it could threaten every other investigation against him. That’s why, for some of Trump’s biggest critics, the prospect of an indictment related to the Daniels case leads to little but existential dread. That’s not because the facts show Trump engaged in no wrongdoing; quite the opposite. It is because of all the legal cases Trump faces, this one may be the hardest to prove. If Trump successfully defends himself against an indictment for his role in the payment to Daniels, we can predict he will use it as vindication that any and all charges brought against him are merely so-called witch hunts... Again, Trump should face criminal charges. He must be held accountable for crimes he (allegedly) committed before, during and after he was in office.

"Overwhelming evidence indicates that Trump incited or assisted in an insurrection aimed at obstructing an official proceeding, namely the certification of Electoral College votes," she wrote. "A recorded telephone call shows that he tried to commit election fraud in Georgia. The alleged crime spree didn’t stop when Trump left office. An FBI search and court documents strongly suggest that he unlawfully took classified documents and kept them at his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. And there is plenty of evidence to show that before Trump took office, he and the Trump Organization committed not just civil violations, but also financial crimes, by lying about the value of Trump properties to pay lower taxes and get better deals on loans and insurance... For the sake of the rule of law and of legal and political accountability, let’s hope Bragg and his office know something we don’t about the strength of his case against the former president."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right are skeptical of the indictment, saying the case is flimsy or Trump is exaggerating the threat of an arrest.
  • Some argue the indictment would be a mistake and amounts to political prosecution.
  • Others say Trump is already the worst actor in this drama, but we should all calm down and see what the indictment actually is before pre-judging.

In The Hill, Jonathan Turley called the potential indictment "high on ratings" and "short on the law."

“Trump faces serious legal threats in the ongoing Mar-a-Lago investigation. But the New York case would be easily dismissed outside of a jurisdiction like New York, where Bragg can count on highly motivated judges and jurors," Turley said. "Although it may be politically popular, the case is legally pathetic. Bragg is struggling to twist state laws to effectively prosecute a federal case long ago rejected by the Justice Department against Trump over his payment of ‘hush money’ to former stripper Stormy Daniels. In 2018 (yes, that is how long this theory has been around), I wrote how difficult such a federal case would be under existing election laws. Now, six years later, the same theory may be shoehorned into a state claim.

"It is extremely difficult to show that paying money to cover up an embarrassing affair was done for election purposes as opposed to an array of obvious other reasons, from protecting a celebrity’s reputation to preserving a marriage," Turley said. "In this case, Trump reportedly paid Daniels $130,000 in the fall of 2016 to cut off or at least reduce any public scandal. The Southern District of New York’s U.S. Attorney’s office had no love lost for Trump, pursuing him and his associates in myriad investigations, but it ultimately rejected a prosecution based on the election law violations. It was not alone: The Federal Election Commission chair also expressed doubts about the theory. Prosecutors working under Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., also reportedly rejected the viability of using a New York law to effectively charge a federal offense. More importantly, Bragg himself previously expressed doubts about the case, effectively shutting it down soon after he took office."

In The Washington Examiner, Quin Hilyer said everyone "should stop pre-judging" an indictment that hasn't happened yet.

"With rumors rampant of an impending arrest of former President Donald Trump, everybody, including Trump, needs to calm down. This includes pundits pre-judging the case before it even has been filed. As usual, the worst actor in this drama is Trump himself. This is a man who already helped inspire an attack on the U.S. Capitol in which 140 law-enforcement officers were injured," Hilyer wrote. "The last thing he should be doing — but, of course, the very thing he already has done — is calling for 'protests' if he is arrested. These are not the words of a statesman. These are not the words of a patriot. This is the sort of incitement one would expect from a caudillo in a banana republic.

"[Still], Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg really should be careful. On one hand, it is entirely wrong for blathering commentators to say that a particularly high bar should protect former presidents from indictment. The other glory of our system, after all, is that nobody is above the law," he said. "Presidents, no less than prison guards, should be subject to an indictment if the case is solid, without needing a tacit extra layer of protection so that only the most serious crimes should be subject to legal action. On the other hand, it is certainly the case that former presidents shouldn’t be indicted on lesser grounds than anyone else would be. Tenuous cases and newfangled legal theories shouldn’t be tested on former presidents largely for political effect."

In National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy said Trump's claim of a Tuesday arrest is "highly unlikely."

"There seems little doubt that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment of Donald Trump is imminent. As I said Friday, I’d bet on the early part of this coming week because (a) the grand jury that has been hearing evidence in the matter appears to meet on Mondays and Wednesdays; (b) most of the critical witnesses have been interviewed, including Trump’s former self-described 'fixer,' Michael Cohen, who testified last Monday and Wednesday; (c) the prosecutors also reportedly touched base last week with Stormy Daniels (the porn star whose real name is Stephanie Clifford) to make sure she was ready and willing to testify; and (d) the prosecutors invited Trump himself to testify (he declined, as one would expect), and such an invitation to the target of a grand-jury investigation is typically one of the last steps, if not the last step, taken by the state before asking a grand jury to vote on a proposed indictment.

"All that said, though, reports that Trump will be arrested on Tuesday are premature and probably inaccurate. They appear to have been generated by the former president himself and apparently are not based on discussions between the Trump camp and the DA’s office," McCarthy wrote. "The Times says state prosecutors are still tying up some loose ends. This potentially includes the presentation of another (unidentified) witness to the grand jury. If that’s true, it could result in some delay in the grand jury’s voting of the indictment... In addition, I would not expect Trump to be 'arrested' in the familiar sense of that term — i.e., police taking him into custody and placing him in handcuffs. The former president has Secret Service (USSS) protection... The USSS will keep Trump secure, and the NYPD will make sure he is efficiently processed and produced for his court appearance."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • There is a lot of evidence Trump paid off Daniels, and also that they had an affair.
  • That doesn't mean he committed a crime, and even if he did proving would be exceedingly difficult.
  • We are still working on limited information, but an indictment for this allegation is a bad move for several reasons.

Two things to get out of the way first:

One, I think the evidence strongly suggests that Trump had an affair with Stormy Daniels, and that Trump's team paid her not to share the story. I know this might be controversial to many of my readers, but the paper trail is pretty overwhelming (it is actually kind of amusing how obvious it is), which is why Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison. Whether Trump actually instructed Cohen to do that, or if Daniels simply invented the sexual encounter to entrap Trump, is another matter. We'll never know the former, but the latter seems very unlikely to me based on how Trump and his team have handled the allegations.

Two, I am not at all convinced this indictment is actually imminent, if it’s coming at all — and certainly don't think liberals should start dreaming about Trump getting perp walked in handcuffs or ending up in an orange jumpsuit. That just isn't going to happen. Unsurprisingly, The New York Times appears to have very well-placed sources in the Manhattan District attorney's office (which I don't!), and their reporting certainly seems to suggest an imminent indictment, but after years of such rumors I agree with Hilyer (under “What the right is saying”) that we should all wait for the actual thing to happen before talking about it as if it has happened already.

As for whether it should, there are some interesting things getting lost in that debate. First, Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, is being framed by the right as some unhinged liberal prosecutor out for blood. Ironically, it wasn't so long ago that the left was mad at Bragg for not pursuing this very case more earnestly. In fact, two prosecutors under Bragg resigned because they thought he wasn't being aggressive enough. In a rather shocking, unusual and unprofessional move, one wrote an entire book detailing the case against Trump, despite the fact he hasn't even been charged yet.

Now Bragg, the same guy who had the ire of liberals not so long ago, is getting accused of political hackery by the right for purportedly preparing this indictment. It's worth stating plainly here that Bragg should be left to do his work. How he has acted as DA in New York City is not really any of the federal government’s business, and threats from Congressional Republicans to investigate him or criticisms of his work are either toothless or inappropriate. Bragg was democratically elected in a competitive primary and then in a landslide general election over a Republican opponent (it was a 67-point margin) by New Yorkers. He has done precisely what he campaigned on doing, and he has slow-walked this investigation enough to piss off a lot of his supporters.

All this being said — that Trump almost certainly did pay off Daniels, that Bragg has drawn the ire of both sides, that an indictment might not even happen, and that Republicans in Congress are wrong to threaten to investigate a district attorney — I really don't think this indictment would be a smart move. I say this assuming that it is what we think it is, based on the extensive reporting, leaks, and history of the charges we know about.

There are a lot of reasons I say this: The story here is ancient history. And the charges are flimsy. Bragg himself has said so, and as Turley laid out (under "What the right is saying") the charges have basically been scoffed at in other settings. Paying hush money is not illegal — in fact, it's precisely the kind of contractual agreement that victims or people like Daniels want. However slimy it may feel, it's how things often work in our legal system. In order to peg Trump for a crime (again: if it is what we think it is), the DA would essentially be going after him for a campaign finance violation that amounts to a misdemeanor — unless there is some underlying evidence that the payments were also to cover up a crime, in which case it could become a felony.

Not only would Trump beat that charge politically, because most of the country would understand it to be overzealous, but he'd also have a good chance of beating it in court. All that would have to happen is the prosecutors fail to prove intent, or Trump shows he was acting on advice of his legal team, or there is no smoking gun around (i.e. an email from Trump asking Cohen to shut Daniels up). Even folks like Levinson (under "What the left is saying") who desperately want to see Trump held criminally liable for something understand how difficult this case would be to prosecute successfully.

Indicting a former president is unprecedented. Certainly, Trump has some legitimate legal walls closing in on him. But this story? Hush payment over an affair during campaign season eight years ago? It's hard to imagine this one sticking, either in court or in the public's mind.

Your questions, answered.

Q: While wearing your "pretend presidential cap," one of the reasons you provided [for supporting Ukraine] was that "Ukraine's security is Europe's security." If so, then why does the U.S. aid to Ukraine dwarf the aid being provided by the European countries? It can't be because we have deep pockets -- the US is in huge debt, so we are borrowing money to give to Ukraine. Shouldn't Europe step up?

— Maria from Rochester, New York

Tangle: It's a great question. First, the numbers on Ukraine aid are a little complicated to parse because there is a difference between money committed and money actually sent, as well as military support and financial aid. So for comparison’s sake, let's put all of this in one bucket of money actually sent: Humanitarian support, financial support, and military support since the war began. At the end of February, that total was $75 billion of assistance.

The numbers from Europe are also difficult to parse. First, European countries are members of the European Union, which has sent over $30 billion of financial and humanitarian aid. Then, every individual country has given some combination of military, financial and humanitarian aid. The top three are the United Kingdom ($8.7 billion), Germany ($6.6 billion) and Poland ($3.6 billion), for a sum total of $19 billion. So, the entire European Union combined and the three largest European donor countries separately have contributed roughly $49 billion compared to our $75 billion.

There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that the U.S. is spending more than it should, and the rest of Europe should step up its investment. Generally speaking, I believe this is true. Europe should be giving more. It's one of the best and most cogent criticisms from former President Trump: Europe needs to invest more in its own defenses.

But there is a good counter-argument:.By share of GDP, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are all spending more than the U.S. Bulgaria, Norway, the United Kingdom and Canada are all spending slightly less but basically the same. So, we are spending the most — but we are also the largest and richest (despite our debt), with the best funded military, and we have basically spent and developed ourselves into this position. When you act as principal of the world and build up the world's biggest military, your allies expect you to play principal and use your military might when the times call for it.

In other words, some European countries are absolutely stepping up, especially when you measure by economic size. Some countries, by that measure, are doing more than us. Others, Germany and France in particular, should do more. But part of the catch-22 about being the U.S. is that when you are this rich and this well armed, you are almost organically expected to do the most, which is what we are seeing in real time.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

A new report from a team of researchers presents the strongest case yet that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan wet market, and links the virus to raccoon dogs that were being illegally sold in Wuhan. An international team of virologists, genomicists, and evolutionary biologists says they found crucial data to fill the long-sought gap on how, exactly, the virus jumped from animals to humans. Genetic sequences were pulled out of swabs taken in and near market stalls around the pandemic's start that had long shown evidence of Covid-19, but scientists who examined the data said it lacked genetic material of an animal. Now, these researchers say they have found strong evidence of genetic material that matched a raccoon dog — a small, fox-like animal native to China. The Atlantic broke the story on what we know.


  • 56%. In 2018, the percentage of voters who said they believed Trump had an affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels.
  • 35%. In 2018, the percentage of voters who said they didn't know or had no opinion.
  • 9%. In 2018, the percentage of voters who said they did not believe he had an affair.
  • Zero. The number of former presidents who have ever been indicted on any criminal charges.
  • One. The number of former presidents (Richard Nixon) who have ever been pardoned after leaving office.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we did not publish a newsletter, but had just run a Friday edition on what really drives gas prices.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter: The footage of a Russian jet dumping fuel on a U.S. drone.
  • Back 'em: 33% of Tangle readers said we're providing Ukraine the right amount of support, the most of any single answer. 35.5% said we should provide "a lot" or "a little" more support and 20% said we're providing "a lot" or "a little" too much support.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Why squinting helps you see better.
  • Don't forget to check out DailyChatter.
  • Take the poll: Should Trump be indicted for his payments to Stormy Daniels? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

Forest coverage in Scotland is almost back to where it was 1,000 years ago. For centuries, the Scottish forest was the stuff of lore — nearly 20% of the land in Scotland was covered by forest, but by the mid 18th-century, that had dropped to just 4%. Around then, the trend began to turn around as the country embraced reforestation efforts. And now, after nearly two centuries of growth, the forests are almost all the way back. This is part of a larger trend, with the world having more trees today than it did 35 years ago. GoodGoodGood has the story on the trees, and Our World In Data has the reforestation numbers.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.