The political world was thrown into fresh turmoil Wednesday as a long-predicted indictment of former President Trump was reportedly pushed back at least another several weeks.
Now, no indictment is likely before late April — if even then.
That’s because the grand jury evaluating the case is expected to turn its attention to unspecified other subjects next week, before breaking entirely for a further two weeks.
The grand jury is looking into evidence assembled by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D). The case centers on a 2016 payment of $130,000 to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who claims to have had sex with Trump a decade previously.
Legally, one germane question is whether Trump falsely accounted for reimbursements paid to his then-attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, who arranged and funded the Daniels deal. An additional issue is whether campaign finance laws were breached.
Trump himself had predicted that he would be arrested on March 21, though his advisers subsequently made clear this was not based upon any hard information from prosecutors.
Still, the strange delay is sparking massive speculation.
It seems plausible to some that Bragg is getting cold feet — or coming under political pressure from others within his party to stall.
Even staunch Trump critics acknowledge the case in Manhattan seems rather flimsy; Trump supporters see it as plain evidence that the former president is being unfairly and speciously targeted.
“It’s all speculative, but my guess is that there are political forces — political people at the national level on the Democratic side — who have urged restraint on Bragg because they realize what a mistake and debacle it would be to indict the former president for this conduct,” Sol Wisenberg told this column.
Wisenberg was deputy independent counsel to the late Kenneth Starr during Starr’s investigation into then-President Clinton.
Other legal figures had begun raising broadly similar concerns even before the latest delay.
John Dean, the former White House counsel who was a prominent figure in the Watergate hearings in the 1970s, told CNN late last week that Bragg “knows his isn’t the strongest, most presidential-type case that is going to be presented against Trump. And he might have been asked to delay, and drag his feet a little while, because some of these other cases might be ripe for action.”
The doubts are all the sharper because legal experts had been virtually unanimous in believing that the case was nearing a vote on an indictment.
Trump had been invited to testify to the grand jury, and a witness favorable to him also spoke to the panel. Both moves typically signal that the grand jury phase of the investigation is nearing its end.
Trump would be the first former president to be criminally indicted.
But a moment of such historical significance is coming close over the rather tawdry question of whether it was a criminal offense to buy the silence of an actress about an alleged liaison.
In that regard, Bragg’s case stands in stark contrast to the gravity of investigations into Trump’s conduct around the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection; his pressure campaign aimed at overturning the 2020 election result in Georgia; or whether he willfully retained classified information at his Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago and lied about doing so.
From a political standpoint, Trump and his allies would be only too eager to use a botched prosecution on the Daniels case to discredit probes into more serious matters.
“There is going to always be blowback from an indictment, but here you are giving extra fodder to people who believe that Trump is being given an unfair deal — whereas the other things being looked at, whether he did them or not, are serious,” said Wisenberg.
Other legal figures, even those who express some skepticism about Bragg’s case, caution against reading too much into the failure, so far, to vote on an indictment.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, said that he found Bragg’s case against Trump “very questionable and problematic.”
But he added: “We don’t know there is anything surprising happening here. In other words, we knew there was an investigation, and there were signs that it was wrapping up. But the only hard deadline was a social post from Trump himself saying this was going to happen last Tuesday. We don’t know whether that was based on anything.”
Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general, said he still expected an indictment to be leveled against Trump, asserting that “it would be something I have never seen before in my career, for [prosecutors] to reach this point before pulling the plug.”
Still, Litman was more perplexed by the latest, long delay.
“It’s not a sign that [Bragg] is packing up his bags, but it can’t be explained away as just a previously-scheduled hiatus,” Litman said.
It’s possible, Litman acknowledged, that the district attorney is still aiming to strengthen his case or augment it with new charges.
“But it just begs the question, why now?,” he added. “Wasn’t the time to do this months ago?”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.