Donald Trump’s Least Serious Indictment Could Be His Most Damaging

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Former President Donald Trump is expected in court Thursday for a hearing in his Stormy Daniels hush money case, which could end up being the most damaging of all the indictments the former president is facing.

It will be the first of Trump’s four criminal trials, if it goes ahead as scheduled next month, and is in some ways the least serious as it likely carries the lowest potential criminal penalties.

While the other three trials might not go ahead until after the 2024 presidential election, when Trump could pardon himself or have them postponed if he wins, the Daniels case looks set to conclude well before the election.

The case has not attracted the same media attention as Trump’s other criminal cases, which involve alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election and the alleged hoarding of highly sensitive classified documents.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association presidential forum at the Great American Outdoor Show on February 9 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Trump is expected to go on trial in March on charges…


Spencer Platt/Getty Images

However, the Daniels case could result in jail time and major political embarrassment before the Republican Convention in July, when Trump is expected to formally accept the GOP presidential nomination.

The prosecution is expected to try to prove that, before the 2016 presidential election, Trump paid two women—Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal—not to reveal his affairs with them. He is also accused of making payments to a former Trump Tower doorman who claimed to know that Trump fathered a child with another woman. Trump has strongly denied all allegations.

Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is expected to testify that he paid Daniels $130,000 and arranged for the publisher of the National Enquirer to pay McDougal $150,000. In both cases, Trump’s alleged motive was to avoid scandal while he was campaigning against Hillary Clinton for the presidency.

Trump’s real estate parent company, The Trump Organization, then allegedly reimbursed Cohen $420,000 to cover the payments to the two women and extra payments to ensure Cohen’s silence.

Judge Juan Manuel Merchan is holding a pre-trial hearing on Thursday to sort out the trial arrangements, including a motion by Trump’s lawyer to have the case dismissed. He is unlikely to grant the request so close to trial after denying a previous request for dismissal.

Trump’s lawyers have requested that, if he denies their request, they be allowed to present “an alternative basis” for dismissing the charges, based on other legal arguments, including their claim that Trump is the victim of selective prosecution.

Bryan M. Sullivan, Hunter Biden’s attorney and a founding partner at Los Angeles-based Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae, told Newsweek that The Trump Organization’s former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, could be a vital witness if he agrees to cooperate.

The New York Times reported on February 1 that Weisselberg is willing to cooperate with authorities and admit that he lied in Trump’s recent New York fraud trial.

“Cooperation likely will be part of the plea, but since the fraud trial has concluded, it would have to be in connection with some other case—most likely cooperation in the criminal case relating to alleged payoffs to Stormy Daniels,” Sullivan said.

Newsweek sought email comment from attorneys representing Trump on Wednesday.

Sullivan said that the Daniels trial “is the only case pending in New York and Weisselberg may be able to connect the dots on the money that was used for the alleged payoff.”

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony charges relating to the case and has repeatedly said it is part of a political witch hunt aimed at derailing his bid for the White House. Daniels said in January that she is “set to testify” in the trial, which will begin in New York on March 25. Whether Trump will choose to attend the trial is unknown.

The payments case is scheduled to be the next trial for Trump following the cancellation of the March 4 start date for the federal interference trial in Washington, D.C.

It is also the first criminal case filed against Trump, with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg bringing felony charges against the former president in March 2023.

Separately, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against Trump for inflating the value of his assets to get more favorable loans. James is asking for $370 million and for Trump to be permanently barred from doing business in New York. Trump has maintained his innocence and claimed the case is politically motivated as he is the GOP front-runner in the 2024 presidential race.

After Judge Arthur Engoron determined that Trump was liable for fraud, a months-long damages trial ensued. The trial ended in early January with Engoron saying that he would try to have his ruling by January 31. However, the decision has been delayed indefinitely.