Apr 3, 2023

Trump gets indicted.

Trump gets indicted.
Image: Gage Skidmore

The indictment finally came. What does it mean?

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: 11 minutes.

Former President Donald Trump has been indicted. Today, we explore the arguments about the indictment. Also, a reader asks about the involvement of ex-presidents in politics.

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Quick hits.

  1. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) announced his plans to run for president. (The story)
  2. Another series of tornados and storms across the U.S. killed 32 people and injured hundreds more over the weekend, spanning the Midwest to the Southern United States. (The storms)
  3. Protesters in Israel continued taking to the streets over the weekend despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to delay his judicial reform policy. (The protests)
  4. A federal judge in Tennessee blocked a new law, dubbed a "drag ban," that would have classified male and female impersonators as adult cabaret performers and prevented such performances from taking place in public spaces when minors are present. (The ruling)
  5. The lawsuit between Dominion Voting Systems and Fox News will go to a jury trial after a Delaware judge ruled against both parties' request to skip a trial. (The decision)

Today's topic.

The Trump indictment. In mid-March, we covered the "imminent" Trump indictment after the former president said he was going to be arrested in the coming days. It took nearly two weeks, but on Thursday, a Manhattan grand jury indicted Trump for his role in paying hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The charges mark the first time a former or sitting president has ever been criminally charged. Prosecutors confirmed the charges and said they had contacted Trump to coordinate his surrender to authorities, where he'll be briefly detained for fingerprinting and processing. Once he is arraigned on Tuesday, the specific charges will be unsealed. The New York Times reported that he faces more than two dozen counts, while the Associated Press reported at least one of those counts is a felony.

As we previously reported, the charges against Trump are being brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg after a nearly five-year investigation. Trump is alleged to have coordinated $130,000 of payments to Daniels to keep her from publicly discussing the purported affair. Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen has already pled guilty and served prison time for charges related to the payments.

It's still unclear what specific charges will be brought against Trump, though it's suspected they will be related to campaign finance violations and falsifying business records for misreporting the hush money sent to Cohen as legal fees. Similar charges had already been examined by federal prosecutors who declined to prosecute Trump. Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor, but can be a felony if prosecutors can show Trump intended to commit fraud by covering up another crime. A conviction on those charges carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison, though prison time is not mandatory.

During his trial, Cohen said under oath that the payments were directed by Trump, and that he was reimbursed for them as legal expenses. Trump, who was married during the alleged relationship, has denied ever having an affair with Daniels as well as nearly all of Cohen’s claims, and has repeatedly called the allegations and investigation a witch hunt.

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

“This is political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history,” Trump said in a statement.

While some Democrats cheered the charges, saying nobody should be above the law, others fear the case may be difficult to prosecute and could distract from the other, more serious charges Trump is facing. Currently, Trump is being investigated by federal prosecutors over the January 6 riots; by the D.C. attorney general over alleged financial fraud on the Presidential Inaugural Committee; by the Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney over alleged criminal election interference in Georgia; by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over alleged 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.

Meanwhile, the first poll conducted since the indictment, by Yahoo News/YouGov, shows Trump with a 26-point lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a hypothetical Republican primary, up eight points from just two weeks ago, when Trump first announced he was going to be indicted.

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

What the left is saying.

  • Most on the left support the indictment, saying Trump can't be allowed to operate above the law.
  • Some argue that this is a regular case of white collar crime, and it's totally reasonable to prosecute Trump.
  • Others argue that Bragg has chosen a very difficult series of criminal charges to prove.

The New York Times editorial board said "even Donald Trump" should be held accountable.

"Donald Trump spent years as a candidate, in office and out of office, ignoring democratic and legal norms and precedents, trying to bend the Justice Department and the judiciary to his whims and behaving as if rules didn’t apply to him," the board said. "As the news of the indictment shows, they do." Prosecutors were right to "set aside concerns" about politics, and this is only the first of several indictments Trump could face. While Trump has "routinely called for his enemies to be investigated by the F.B.I., to be indicted or to face the death penalty, his indifference to due process for others shouldn’t deny him the system’s benefits, including a fair trial and the presumption of innocence."

Nor should any jury extend him privileges as former president. Trump's alleged actions — "using money to silence critics and hide politically damaging information — were wrong. The question that will face a jury is whether that behavior meets the threshold for conviction as a felony." There is "no basis" for the accusation that this is politically motivated, which Trump has claimed "for many years, about every investigation into his conduct."

In The Nation, Chris Lehmann said the case is "less a matter of politics" than of "ruling class impunity."

Sure, with "Trump at the center of a full-bore conspiracy to reverse the 2020 presidential election" the $130,000 payment "isn’t something that would count as a marquee instance of Trumpian corruption." But it's still an offense, "very much like" when former Senator John Edwards faced six charges in federal court for campaign-funding violations, "after he steered more than $900,000 from his own presidential campaign coffers to support his pregnant mistress. There was no talk then of the unhinged politicization of the legal system, and no dark prophecies of civic apocalypse."

"It’s possible, in other words, to treat Bragg’s case against Trump not as a prelude to some operatic clash of culture-war legions but rather as a fairly garden-variety (if seamy) legal proceeding against a bad actor caught in a bad act," Lehmann wrote. Some worry the "somewhat novel legal theory" may "undermine more consequential pending actions against Trump," but "legal proceedings don’t cancel themselves out once they’re plotted out on some imaginary grid of comparative seriousness." Should Trump "wriggle out" of the charges, "the weightier Georgia and federal cases won’t be derailed... It's not that the apprehension surrounding the indictment isn’t understandable—but it’s ultimately not properly scaled to a disgraced former president who’s guided his party through three disappointing election cycles."

In Slate, Mark Joseph Stern wrote about "the big problem" with the Trump indictment.

Bragg's case "is the first to result in an indictment, though arguably the toughest to win." The "mismatch between New York law and the misconduct alleged here" is defensible, but "an extremely unusual set of circumstances gave rise to this alleged crime, denying Bragg the ability to fortify his charges with precedent and thereby leaving Trump ample room to question their legitimacy." Winning at trial would "include proving Trump’s intent to contravene campaign finance law" by putting "Cohen on the stand" and persuading a jury "he is more credible than the former president."

Despite "existing evidence of Trump's extensive involvement" in the scheme, we have not yet seen "a smoking gun that proves his fraudulent intent (1) to falsify records in furtherance of (2) helping his campaign." Bragg will also need to "refute Trump’s defense (already previewed on Truth Social) that Cohen (1) told him the payoff was legal and (2) he relied on this advice in good faith. Again, the resolution of this dispute may well hang on the jury’s determination of credibility between the two men."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right criticize the indictment, arguing it is an overreach that will have grave consequences.
  • Some say the case against Trump is hard to prove and this will unleash similar prosecutions of other presidents in the future.
  • Others say if Bragg doesn't have much more evidence than what is known, it unlocks a dangerous new era of political prosecutions.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said it is "a sad day for the country" with unpredictable and "probably destructive" political ramifications.

"The indictment itself remains under seal, so we can’t examine the specific charges and evidence," the board said. "Perhaps Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has new evidence that will be compelling." Still, "we believe any prosecution of a former president should involve a serious offense. The evidence should also be solid enough that a reasonable voter would find it persuasive. The last thing a politically polarized America needs is a case in which partisans line up on either side like a political O.J. Simpson trial."

Especially "when the case involves a former President who is also running again for the same office, as Mr. Trump now is." Trump "will add this to the list of false Russian collusion claims, two failed impeachments, and the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago document raid. Whether that political defense succeeds will depend on how the case evolves in court in what will be a media circus for the ages. Mr. Trump’s reckless personal behavior has made himself vulnerable as usual, but Democratic excess could rescue him again." Of course, Democrats also "think he is the easiest candidate to beat" and "want Mr. Trump in the dock and at the center of the political debate."

In The Washington Post, Jason Willick ran through all the ways the indictment was unusual.

"First, it’s based on old conduct involving payments to porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 to stop her from revealing an alleged affair from the 2000s," he wrote. "Second, other prosecutors declined to pursue the case against Trump — not just the famously aggressive U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, but New York City’s previous district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., a Democrat." Also, "the charges rest on the proposition that the payment to buy Daniels’s silence amounted to a Trump campaign expense. Perhaps, but nondisclosure agreements are frequently entered into by public figures who aren’t candidates for office."

Finally, "the indictment would seem to transform a hypothetical federal offense into a state crime under a New York business-records law. According to this procedural jujitsu, Trump committed a state felony by marking the payments as legal expenses to conceal a federal campaign expense. Prosecutors prefer not relying on such convoluted constructs, which are vulnerable on appeal." Maybe Trump will be convicted, "but does this sound like the project of a good-faith prosecutor?"

In The Federalist, Margot Cleveland said the indictment launches an era of "police-state politics."

Bragg's decision "promises to herald in a new political age — one in which local prosecutors will target partisan enemies, big and small, making a mockery of the criminal justice system in the process." News of the indictment "leaked to the left's favorite scribes at The New York Times," which "punctuates perfectly the Sovietesque times in which we live: The legacy media may not be state-run, but they peddle propaganda nonetheless."

Bragg is expected to use Trump's physical absence from New York (when he was president) "to sidestep the five-year statute of limitations that applies to a felony of falsifying business records," which will "add to the stench of the case." If Bragg hasn't uncovered something "much beyond the details already reported about the Daniels payment," he will "only make matters worse by pushing for an indictment of the former president on more than 30 criminal counts," presumably "by charging Trump with separate counts for each of the monthly payments made to Cohen in 2017."

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. You can also leave a comment.

  • We still don't know the specific charges, so our information is still limited.
  • If the charges are what they seem, I have grave concerns about this step.
  • Bragg's case will be tough to prove and whether we like it or not, there will be political consequences to consider.

Given that we have very little new information, very little about my opinion from two weeks ago has changed — except my skepticism that the indictment was imminent, or if it would come at all.

I think the evidence suggests Trump’s team paid Daniels not to share her story and that they tried to cover their tracks in doing so. Whether the affair actually happened is still a matter of Daniels’ word versus Trump’s. Even if my suspicions were true, though, it'd hardly be a novel scandal in American politics. And I don't think it is the kind of scandal that should break hundreds of years of precedent and prosecutorial discretion in America.

Of all the conservative writers I saw break down the unusual nature of this case, I thought Jason Willick did the best (under "What the right is saying"). It's not just a novel legal theory being used against a former president. It's not just that, had Trump not left New York to be president (and paused the statute of limitations), this case would be too old to bring. It's not just that other federal prosecutors have already opted not to bring this case. It's all of those things combined, then packaged with the fact this is the very first indictment of a former president, or a presidential candidate, by a district attorney from the opposing political party.

And while the left's "nobody should be above the law" talking point does resonate with me, I think we can all concede that while that should be the case, it actually isn't. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that Cohen has already been convicted and served his prison time for basically the same crime that Trump has just now been indicted for.

I certainly don’t think we should never bring up charges against former presidents because they are former presidents. Other democracies actually do a better job of holding their leaders accountable on reasonable terms than we do (see Israel, France, Italy, Taiwan, etc). But if this is the bar that we are setting, do you really think the Clintons and Bidens and Bushes of the world aren't ripe for indictment, too? We’ve already seen voters in small towns in Vermont try to indict Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney for “crimes against the Constitution” — what fresh new flood of charges will this, from Alvin Bragg, open up? Perhaps a conservative district attorney on the border wants to charge President Biden for failure to protect the border?

And that's just it: Trump stands accused of at least one other crime that actually makes him unique and really deserves an indictment (if a grand jury determines the evidence is sufficient), like the election interference charges he faces in Georgia. Bringing charges like this, around what most Americans will recognize as a run-of-the-mill tawdry political scandal, seven years after the fact, will only make other more legitimate criminal cases against Trump look like a "witch hunt," as the former president puts it.

I'm not saying it strengthens his position, as some political pundits have posited.. I think most "regular" Americans are going to scoff at the idea that of all the things presidents have done in U.S. history, this is going to be what the first indictment is brought for. Anecdotally, I know many of my friends and family who are casual political observers — even ones who dislike Trump — have asked me in recent days some version of, "Really? This is what they are going to try to get him for?"

There is always the chance Bragg is holding cards we don't know about, but based on how the case appears so far, I’m deeply concerned. When it comes to the psyche of the country, I suspect in a few years or maybe a decade we’ll look back on this moment and regret that this was why we opened Pandora’s Box.

Your questions, answered.

Q: What is the historical precedent of former U.S. presidents remaining involved in contemporary politics? The most obvious current example is former President Trump announcing his bid for a second, non-consecutive term and his endorsement of candidates that may or may not have cost the Republicans winnable races. But I also think of former President Obama, and his campaigning on behalf of vulnerable Democrats through either in person appearances, visits to the White House, recorded phone messages, timely book releases, etc. To my knowledge, other former presidents from both parties have been reticent [to] remain in the fray once their terms were up.

— Nate from Fountain, Colorado

Tangle: Believe it or not, it's actually pretty rare. When former president Obama campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016, it was a precedent breaker. No president had strongly campaigned for his chosen successor in about 100 years. NPR had a helpful article from 2016 that broke down recent presidents and how they handled their retirements.

Some, obviously, didn't campaign because they were in poor health, and others didn't because they were unpopular (i.e. George W. Bush not campaigning for John McCain). But whatever the reason, a president being as visible, vocal and involved in politics as Trump, who is running again, or Obama, who has repeatedly campaigned against Trump and for other Democrats, is just plain rare.

Each of the last few presidents — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter — were all far quieter in the political world. Carter, especially, made a name for himself for living a rather humble and quietly philanthropic post-presidential life, rarely wading back into the political fray.

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Under the radar.

On Sunday, OPEC+ oil producers made a surprise announcement that they will cut output by 1.16 million barrels per day, a move designed to drive up prices in the United States. The pledged cuts means OPEC+ has reduced their output by about 3.7% of the global demand in the last few months. Last month, oil prices fell to $70 per barrel, the lowest in 15 months. The latest cuts could lift oil prices by as much as $10 per barrel. In the U.S., officials criticized the move, calling it "unwise." Reuters has the story and what it means.


  • 47%. The percentage of Americans who view the N.Y. prosecution as politically motivated, according to an ABC/Ipsos poll.
  • 32%. The percentage of Americans who do not view the prosecution as politically motivated, according to an ABC/Ipsos poll.
  • 20%. The percentage of Americans who said they weren't sure.
  • 45%. The percentage of Americans who think Trump should have been charged with a crime, according to the same ABC/Ipsos poll.
  • 32%. The percentage of Americans who think Trump should not have been charged with a crime.
  • 62%. The percentage of Republicans who said Trump should not have been charged.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we did not publish a newsletter, but had just run a Friday edition comparing the make-up of America to members of Congress.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter: The vote to repeal the Iraq War authorization.
  • Not today: 60% of Tangle readers said they "strongly" oppose the Parental Rights bill passed by Republicans in Congress.
  • Nothing to do with politics: New York City's dogs leave an estimated 74 tons of feces around the city every day, and there were just 18 tickets issued in all of New York for failure to pick up canine waste last year. It's starting some drama.
  • Take the poll: Do you think the Trump indictment is politically motivated? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

Johnny Gabel is a storm chaser and carpenter. In March, he was tracking a cyclone through the south when he came into Rolling Fork, Mississippi, a town that had just been leveled by the storm. Gabel got out of his car and heard someone screaming for help from a nearby house. When he entered, he found an elderly woman sitting in bed as if nothing had happened. She and her family were remarkably unscathed inside a home that had just been completely destroyed. After rescuing them, he kept in touch with the family, and Gabel has now offered to help them rebuild their home and started a GoFundMe campaign to fund the project. Upworthy has the story.

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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.