News broke on Monday that New York City prosecutors were presenting evidence to a grand jury about the hush money scheme Donald Trump used to keep adult film star Stormy Daniels from disclosing his extramarital affair with her before the 2016 election.
Ms Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, accepted a $130,000 payment from Mr Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, in exchange for her signing an October 2016 non-disclosure agreement.
Two years later after the The Wall Street Journal published a January 2018 report revealing the payment to Ms Daniels, the arrangement became the subject of a federal probe into whether the hush money was a de facto campaign contribution, which would have made Cohen and Mr Trump criminally liable for violating US campaign finance laws.
That investigation ensnared Cohen, who eventually spent a year in prison and several years more on supervised release after pleading guilty to eight criminal charges, including a campaign finance law violation.
The disgraced attorney admitted in court that he’d made the payment at Mr Trump’s direction through a limited liability company he’d created for that purpose. Business records later obtained from Mr Trump’s company by New York prosecutors revealed that Mr Trump’s company reimbursed Mr Cohen for the payment under the guise of compensating him for legal services.
Although federal prosecutors noted in court documents that Mr Cohen’s crime had been committed at Mr Trump’s behest, the then-president wasn’t charged at the time or even named as an unindicted co-conspirator.
Why is the Manhattan DA’s office looking at this now? And what does it mean?
It’s unclear why New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg has chosen to reopen the probe into the hush money matter. But the investigation by a special grand jury could pose some peril for the twice-impeached ex-president.
Because the Trump Organization claimed that the reimbursements to Cohen were payments for legal services rather than reimbursements for the money paid to Ms. Daniels, prosecutors could be looking to ask the grand jury to indict Mr. Trump for falsifying business records.
In New York, that charge would normally be just a misdemeanor. But because the alleged falsification of records was meant to conceal the campaign finance law violation, that misdemeanor can instead be charged as a felony.
If charged and convicted, Mr Trump could face as many as four years in prison.
Why does it matter?
The New York probe into Mr Trump is just one of a number of criminal investigations focused on his alleged illegal conduct.
A Department of Justice special prosecutor, Jack Smith, is leading a probe into whether Mr Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election violated criminal laws, as well as an investigation into the ex-president’s alleged unlawful retention of classified documents at his Florida beach club.
And in Fulton County, Georgia, a special grand jury overseen by District Attorney Fani Willis has completed a report into Mr Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden that could recommend charges against the ex-president or his allies.
At a court hearing last week, Ms Willis said she is considering whether to ask a regular grand jury to issue indictments. She told a judge she wanted the report to remain under seal for now, but said decisions on charges were “imminent” at the time.
Unlike in Georgia, the special grand jury Mr. Bragg’s office is working with will be able to issue indictments itself. Such grand juries can sit for up to six months and are usually empaneled to investigate complex criminal matters.