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Revisiting the Stormy Daniels case that could lead to Donald Trump's indictment

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Donald Trump could soon become the first former president in U.S. history to be indicted. He's been invited to testify before a grand jury in New York this week, a move that's seen as a likely prelude to an indictment. NPR's Ilya Marritz covers Trump legal matters and joins us now. Good morning.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: This has to be a pretty busy beat for you, I would imagine, Ilya, because there are several criminal investigations surrounding the former president. Remind us where this one fits in in the bigger picture.

MARRITZ: Right. Well, there's one investigation by a local prosecutor in Atlanta into Trump's pressure campaign on Georgia officials to move the state into his column in the 2020 election. Then there's the federal investigation connected with that election and also classified documents Trump took to Mar-a-Lago. This investigation is the longest-running of all of them, and it reaches back to 2016. It's being led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who already won a conviction against Trump's family business for long-running tax fraud late last year. Trump was not personally charged. Bragg spoke in January just after sentencing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALVIN BRAGG: This historic sentencing serves or should serve as a reminder to all in New York, both companies in their corporate form and their executives, that this type of conduct in New York will not be tolerated and will be held accountable.

MARRITZ: The next thing DA Bragg said seemed a little cryptic at the time. He said, this sentencing closes this chapter into the investigation of former President Trump and his business. We now move on to the next chapter.

RASCOE: I guess we know about that next chapter now. So it's been widely reported that DA Bragg has been presenting evidence to a grand jury about hush money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Remind us what happened.

MARRITZ: Stormy Daniels claims she had an affair with Trump. And during the 2016 presidential campaign, she was looking for a buyer for her story. Obviously, this kind of information would have been bad for candidate Trump. I want to play you a piece of tape secretly recorded by Trump's fixer at the time, Michael Cohen. What you're going to hear is a conversation Trump and Cohen had not about Stormy Daniels but about another woman, Karen McDougal, who had a similar story about an alleged affair with Trump. You'll hear Cohen and Trump discussing how to buy the story so they can make sure it never gets out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL COHEN: When it comes time for the financing, which will be...

DONALD TRUMP: Listen. Why financing?

COHEN: We'll have to pay...

TRUMP: We'll pay with cash.

COHEN: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I got...

MARRITZ: In the end, the National Enquirer bought McDougal's story and did not publish it. And Cohen bought Stormy Daniels' story through a shell company. Trump later reimbursed Cohen for what was described as legal expenses. And this is the fact pattern that we believe is at the heart of the grand jury investigation. The payment could constitute falsifying business records, which could be a felony if it can be shown this was in service of an illegal campaign donation under New York law. Remember, Michael Cohen went to jail for his part in all this. It was an illegal federal campaign contribution.

RASCOE: But there haven't been any repercussions for Trump personally thus far. So what was his role in this?

MARRITZ: Federal prosecutors were very clear in Cohen's case. They said Cohen acted at the direction of individual one, a person who they did not name but who was very clearly Trump. And Cohen later described being repaid by the president in installments, checks with Trump's signature on them. But the Justice Department has a policy of not pursuing indictments against a sitting president, and that's when the Manhattan DA started investigating about five years ago. And here we are today.

RASCOE: What is former President Trump's team saying? And what are they likely to say if he is indicted?

MARRITZ: Trump has always said that Stormy Daniels' story is made up. He says Cohen is a liar, and Democratic prosecutors like Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg are out to get him. Trump attorney Joe Tacopina also previewed some of his side's legal strategy for NPR. He told us the law here is murky and that Bragg's likely theory of the case is untested. And that is true. Most legal scholars are saying the state statutes available to Bragg would make this a very unusual and risky prosecution. Plus, the defendant would be a former president.

RASCOE: If there is an indictment, when would we expect to see that?

MARRITZ: At the end of this month, at the earliest, is what people with knowledge of the New York grand jury process are telling us.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Ilya Marritz. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARRITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Ilya Marritz
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