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Courtroom drama

The Manhattan district attorney puts former President Donald Trump on the defense

Former President Donald Trump in a Manhattan courtroom Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig, pool photo

Courtroom drama

The state of New York officially charged former President Donald Trump with 34 felonies today. The indictment, unsealed after Trump was arraigned in court, accuses the former president of falsifying business records for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential election. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg claims Trump and some of his colleagues mislabeled company funds to obscure their true purpose: paying two women and a doorman not to go public with potentially damaging information about Trump before the election. Trump denies any wrongdoing in the matter, and he pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

Daniel Suhr, managing attorney for the Liberty Justice Center, points out that the politically charged moment puts two of America’s most powerful traditions at odds.

“On the one hand, we live in a country that’s defined by a creed that includes no man is above the law, right? And that means if you break the law, you should be prosecuted—just like anybody else. On the other hand, we also have this long established tradition in this country, that we don't use the criminal justice system as a tool for politics,” Suhr said.

Bragg, who will lead the prosecution against Trump, is the center of both support and criticism.

The investigation started before Bragg was elected Manhattan district attorney. His predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., started the inquiry in 2019 and spent years bogged down in legal fights over access to evidence such as Trump’s tax information. Beset by delays, the investigation hadn’t developed enough for Vance to launch a prosecution before he retired at the end of 2021. Many believed his departure would jeopardize the case.

Bragg began his career with the state of New York in 2003, working in the attorney general’s office under Eliot Spitzer. He served as the chief of litigations and investigations for the New York City Council from 2006 to 2009, and was appointed deputy attorney general in 2017. He served in that role until 2018.

Bragg announced his candidacy for Manhattan district attorney in 2019. The nine-way race intensified in March 2021 when Vance announced he would not run for reelection.

Despite repeated questioning about whether they would continue the investigation, few candidates were willing to make the issue an outright part of their campaigns—including Bragg. When approached on the subject, he mostly side-stepped a straightforward answer. That didn’t prevent him from pointing out that he had worked on Trump-related investigations before, over a hundred of them in fact. In the final few days of the race, Bragg reminded voters he was capable of prosecuting even the most powerful people in New York.

To Robert Higdon, formerly the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, that should be enough to raise eyebrows.

“It’s been widely reported his statements as a candidate, when he was running for [district attorney] he bragged that he had been in litigation with Trump or his organization. It's such an improper place to be to have a prosecutor who has campaigned against a potential—and now actual defendant,” Higdon said.

Bragg won the race and took office on Jan. 1, 2022, becoming the first African American elected to the office. Although he billed himself as tough on crime, Bragg has taken a soft approach to what he calls low-level offenses. On his third day in office, he announced he would not prosecute crimes involving fare evasion, resisting arrest, prostitution, or cannabis-related misdemeanors. He also said he would seek lesser charges for burglaries and robberies involving weapons that did not create “a genuine risk of physical harm.” Later in his first year in office, he created a new division called Pathways to Public Safety. Its goal is to find alternatives to incarceration with an emphasis on restorative justice.

While those measures pleased Bragg’s progressive base, he faced backlash for indefinitely suspending the Trump investigation—prompting the resignation of two of the office’s top attorneys. Republicans praised him at the time for his lack of partisanship. But that praise was short-lived. Less than a year later, in January 2023, Bragg convened a grand jury to renew prosecution considerations against Trump.

Last year, Bragg secured the conviction of Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, on 15 felony counts, including grand larceny, criminal tax fraud, and falsifying business records.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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