Manhattan DA presents evidence in Trump-Stormy Daniels investigation to grand jury
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Court records document a fact about the past of former President Trump - someone paid hush money to cover up his relationship with an adult film star.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Trump denied any wrongdoing in the payoff to Stormy Daniels. But it seems prosecutors are taking a second look, and they're presenting evidence about the case to a Manhattan grand jury.
INSKEEP: Grand jury proceedings are secret, but a person familiar with them spoke with NPR's Andrea Bernstein, who's on the line. Good morning.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: So this payoff took place, but what would the crime be here?
BERNSTEIN: So the New York crime that they're looking at is falsifying business records, which can be an E felony here. As many people recall, early in Trump's presidency, it emerged that his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, had made a deal with an adult film actor, Stormy Daniels, who said she'd had an extramarital affair with Trump. She would get $130,000. And in exchange, she agreed not to discuss her story with reporters. This all happened in October of 2016, right before the election. Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty and went to prison for violating campaign finance law. And he said, at the time of his guilty plea, that he had done this at the direction of the candidate, that he paid the money and arranged to be reimbursed. Trump's company recorded the payments as legal fees, which they clearly were not.
INSKEEP: OK. So that is where the crime would be, would be lying about what this was. But let's talk about the timing. Cohen pleaded guilty years ago. Why is a grand jury looking at Trump now?
BERNSTEIN: Well, it has taken a circuitous route. The Manhattan DA, Alvin Bragg, isn't commenting. But we do know this. When Cohen pleaded guilty in the federal case, the U.S. Justice Department had determined it would not indict a sitting president. So the Manhattan DA - and actually a different DA at the time - opened its own investigation. Ultimately, that one focused on tax fraud. And, of course, last year, Trump's chief financial officer pleaded guilty, and Trump's company was convicted at trial of scheming to pay its employees with untaxed benefits, like cars and apartments. In the last year, local prosecutors seem to have come back around to the hush money payments. And a person familiar with the investigation tells us that's what the new grand jury is looking at.
INSKEEP: Is the investigation complicated at all by the fact that Trump is running for president again?
BERNSTEIN: Well, not really legally. And people familiar with the investigation tell me that it's actually a pretty simple case compared to, for example, the tax fraud case. It doesn't have years of business records, tax filings. There are fewer witnesses. So it could be not long if the grand jury decides to indict. And if that happens, yes, Donald Trump, candidate for president, would have to show up in criminal court in Manhattan to enter a plea. But it's a unique case, and there could be pitfalls.
INSKEEP: Even if he should avoid legal jeopardy in this case, isn't he facing a couple of other trials in New York?
BERNSTEIN: Yes. And I should say, Trump isn't commenting. He denied wrongdoing. Yesterday on social media, he called this the greatest witch hunt of all time. But there are two cases - two trials that he is facing in New York this year. One involves the columnist E. Jean Carroll, who is suing Trump for defamation after she alleged that he had raped her in the 1990s. He denies wrongdoing. And the other is a big case by the Manhattan DA who says that Trump engaged in a decade-long scheme to lie about property values. She wants $250 million, and she essentially wants to shut down Trump's business in New York.
INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Bernstein, thanks so much.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.