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Even when trying to buy the silence of a woman who claimed to have had a sexual encounter with him, Donald Trump sought to delay the payment until after he won the White House because, as he told his lawyer, by then it wouldn’t matter and he could simply renege on his $130,000 offer.
That is just one of a few embarrassing details included in twin filings unsealed in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday, charging the ex-President with 34 felony counts for allegedly falsifying his private businesses’ logs to pay off a porn star. (Trump denies the affair and pleaded not guilty to the charges.) Other nuggets include details about how Trump used his former fixer to negotiate—and then stiff—the friendly publisher of The National Enquirer who bought and then buried stories alleging a second sexual relationship and a separate dubious tale of an out-of-wedlock child.
As days memorialized in presidential museums go, Tuesday was unlike any other in the network administered by the National Archives, as Trump became the first ever sitting or former President to be indicted. Still, for those who have watched Trump’s messy blending of his personal and business lives, the disclosures in court forms brought few real surprises. The unanswered question hanging over a Republican Party poised to potentially nominate an under-indictment presidential nominee is this: does it even matter to voters who have heard a lot of this tawdry tale before?
Legally, it might. A sullen and surly Trump appeared in Manhattan court on Tuesday afternoon amid unprecedented conditions and to be arraigned on the 34 counts of falsifying invoices, ledger entries, and payments to former and convicted lawyer Michael Cohen—all alleged actions undertaken while Trump was President, starting in February of 2017. Prosecutors contend that Trump’s false statements were in service of concealing other crimes, which in New York bumps the misdemeanor booboos to full, class-E felonies that could carry four years each if Trump were convicted. (To be clear: no one credibly thinks the 76-year-old Trump is heading to the clink for 134 years for fudging business records as a first-time criminal defendant.)
Trump faces very serious questions whether, as a candidate, he negotiated for his political fixer to pay adult film actress Stormy Daniels, real name Stephanie Clifford, $130,000 to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter in order to help him in the 2016 election, and then lied on records about those payments in the months that followed Trump’s move into the White House. The charges in the indictment relate only to the Stormy Daniels payments, but separately, prosecutors say Trump and Cohen used the National Enquirer’s parent company to pay Karen McDougal $150,000 to keep silent about her alleged sexual affair with Trump and another $30,000 to buy a story from a Trump Tower doorman about an out-of-wedlock child. (Ultimately, according to the legal filings, Trump’s team did not reimburse the Enquirer for either outlay; the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, Inc., covered the McDougal deal but withdrew from a reimbursement agreement with Cohen. AMI eventually agreed to settle with the Federal Election Commission for $187,500 for helping the Trump campaign with hush-money payments to McDougal. Editors didn’t didn’t trust the doorman and balked.)
The extraordinary day provided a clear view into the contemporary Republican Party, where Trump still commands tremendous influence and remains the nominee to beat in 2024. As TIME’s Brian Bennett has reported, a Trump indictment and subsequent surrender, trial, and P.R. spectacle could well help his chances in the primary. Trump seems to know it, too: “While we are living through the darkest hours of American history, I can say that at least for this moment right now, I am in great spirits,” Trump’s campaign wrote in an email sent as his plane was ferrying out of New York and back toward Florida, where he plans—of course—a rally-like set of remarks later Tuesday evening.
In that same missive, Trump also upped the ante from a day earlier, when his spokesman said the campaign had raised $7 million since the indictment announcement, a remarkable sum that outpaced his entire official campaign haul for January 2020 when he faced his first impeachment trial. Trump said his fundraising haul stood at $10 million since rumor of an indictment broke in March. All the while, Trump’s effort to merge media businesses Digital World and Trump Media & Technology Group has seen investment jump 20% in that same month-long window. (Execs are hoping to have that deal closed by September.)
Still, the history-making day brought some signs of weakness for Trump. Even as an ex-President, he’s usually the most powerful person in any meeting; his entrance into a room all but demands everyone else rise, but in a courtroom, that reverence is given to a judge, not a defendant. Trump hates weakness in others, and suddenly he was forced to confront his own shaky footing in a system that doesn’t exactly give deference to his former title as it considers whether he committed crimes, both in New York but also elsewhere possibly in Georgia and Washington, D.C.
Now, comes the waiting game. Not for the criminal implications, although those are important if far off. No, the more immediate watch will be whether any of Trump’s potential rivals for 2024—or his skeptics in Washington—will pivot on whether Trump remains the most viable GOP contender to challenge President Joe Biden’s expected re-election campaign. To this point, it’s been largely stick-with-Trump as a political strategy, although it’s one thing to defend someone said to be facing a sealed indictment and it’s quite another to put forward support for someone who, in a detailed, 16-page indictment and 13-page summary of facts, is said to be found beyond dispute in a grand jury’s mind to have committed as many as 34 criminal acts. The indictment may guarantee Trump the nomination while putting him at a distinct disadvantage in a general election against Biden.
It would hardly be the first time Trump skirted responsibility for dodgy behavior with misdirection. After all, the Trump family has been the target of investigations for the last 50 years, starting with Fred Trump and continuing to the ex-President whose Tuesday may prove invaluable in shedding the first part of that title in a little less than two years. For those hoping the criminal justice system finally slaps Donald Trump with consequences, remember: disregard for that same system has been central to Trump’s entire overlay on American politics for more than a decade at this point.
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