Trump in trouble: Explaining the 34 criminal counts against the former president

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, Saturday, April 23, 2022, in Delaware, Ohio, to endorse Republican candidates ahead of the Ohio primary on May 3. [File, AP]

Former U.S. President Donald Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree, felony charges that could land him in prison for up to four years on each count.

That's according to a newly unsealed indictment issued by a New York grand jury last week.

The indictment marks the first time in U.S. history a current or former U.S. president has been criminally charged and comes as Trump seeks the Republican nomination in the 2024 U.S. Presidential election.

The charging document was made public Tuesday afternoon after Trump made his first appearance in Manhattan Supreme Court where he entered a plea of not guilty to all charges.

The charges stem from a hush money payment that Trump's then-lawyer Michael Cohen made during the 2016 presidential campaign to an adult film actor who claimed she had a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier.

Prosecutors say the $130,000 payoff was part of an illegal scheme to suppress stories that could damage Trump's candidacy. The scheme involved Trump, Cohen, and David Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, who bought the rights to several stories and never published them. As part of the scheme, prosecutors say, Pecker, a long-time Trump friend, made two other payments one to a former Playboy model and another to a former Trump Tower doorman who claimed Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock -- an account that turned out to be false.

Trump reimbursed Cohen for the Daniels payout in 2017, but prosecutors say he disguised it as a payment for "legal services" that Cohen never performed. Trump did this, they charge, by receiving fake invoices from Cohen, generating vouchers, and cutting monthly $35,000 checks to Cohen.

This deception, said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, was repeated over and over throughout 2017.

"For nine straight months," Bragg said at a news conference following Trump's arraignment, "the defendant held documents in his hand, containing this key lie, that he was paying Michael Cohen for legal services performed in 2017."

In all, prosecutors say, a series of 34 'false business entries" were made between February and December 2017, each representing an invoice from Cohen, a voucher from the Trump Organization or a check cut by Trump or his company. These records form the basis for each of the 34 criminal counts against Trump.

Count one, for example, is related to the first invoice that Cohen submitted to the Trump Organization on February 14, 2017. The invoice purported to be for $70,000 in "legal services" performed in January and February. But in reality, the indictment charges, it was meant to cover part of Cohen's payment to Daniels.

Counts two and three pertain to two separate vouchers generated by the Trump Organization in response to the invoice, while count four is based on a $70,000 check made out to Cohen by the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust.

In total, Cohen received 11 checks from Trump, amounting to $420,000. The first two came from Trump's trust and the remainder from Trump's personal bank account while he was conducting the affairs of state in the White House.

Prosecutors detailed the scheme in a "statement of facts" accompanying the indictment.

"Each check was processed by the Trump Organization, and each check was disguised as a payment for legal services rendered in a given month of 2017 pursuant to a retainer agreement," prosecutors wrote. "The payment records, kept and maintained by the Trump Organization, were false New York business records."

Falsifying business records or making "a false entry in the business records of an enterprise" is a crime in New York.

District Attorney Bragg called the charge "the bread and butter" of his office's work on white-collar crime.

The offense is typically charged as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison. But it rises to the level of a felony - with a penalty of up to four years in prison - when it is carried out with the intent to commit or hide another crime.

While the indictment doesn't specify Trump's other alleged offenses, prosecutors, both in their statement of facts and in their public comments after the arraignment, cited several possible violations that could be used as "predicate crimes" in the case.

One is a possible violation of New York state election law, which makes it a crime to "promote or prevent" the election of a political candidate by "unlawful means." In New York, "unlawful means" often refers to conduct unauthorized by law.

Another is a breach of the federal election campaign laws, which limit contributions to candidates to substantially less than the $130,000 paid to Daniels.

Finally, in an apparent violation of New York tax laws, the hush money payment was falsely reported as income to New York tax authorities, prosecutors allege.

Joshua Stanton, an attorney at the Perry Guha law firm, said the alleged secondary crimes could enable prosecutors to argue that Trump, with each violation of New York's business records law, intended to commit several other offenses.

"And that puts them in a position a conviction if they can show the intent to commit any one of those crimes," Stanton, who has written extensively about the case, said in an interview with VOA. "And it also gives the Manhattan D.A. something of a sure footing in the highly likely event that Trump files the motion to dismiss."

In the past, New York prosecutors have used the statute on "falsifying business records" to prosecute a wide range of criminal conduct, from violations of bank secrecy laws to cover-ups of sex crimes.

Nevertheless, many legal experts are questioning the novel legal theory at the center of the indictment.

John Malcolm, a vice president at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that while the case against Trump is not "particularly strong," it can't be dismissed out of hand.

"These are felony offenses. You have to take them seriously," Malcolm told VOA. "But I do think it's a very unusual charge."

Malcolm noted that both the Department of Justice and the Federal Election Commission - the bodies tasked with investigating violations of federal campaign finance laws - examined the hush money payment and closed their investigations without charging him.

"Donald Trump, I think, is going to have a number of defenses that he can assert to this," Malcolm said. "In addition to the fact that he's going to try to get the indictment dismissed for selective prosecution, he's going to make an argument that nobody similarly situated would have been charged in this kind of way, I tend to think that that is probably correct."