An Astonishing, Frightening First for the Country

The situation might be merely crass if not for the shadow of violence hanging over it.

Illustration showing Trump and legal hammer
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Brandon Bell / Getty.

For months now, it has been apparent that Donald Trump might well become the first former president of the United States to be indicted. Now the once unthinkable has taken place. A grand jury in Manhattan has handed up an indictment of Donald Trump over his alleged coordination of hush-money payments in advance of the 2016 election. The indictment itself remains under seal.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. For one thing, it wasn’t supposed to happen today. Trump himself had announced earlier this month that he expected to be “arrested” on March 21; on the basis of what information was never clear. For another, of all the ongoing investigations into Trump—and there are many—the Manhattan probe is one of the least legally and factually straightforward. And yet, as is so often the case with Trumpian matters, the most outlandish outcome has somehow managed to come true.

The case traces back to 2018 reporting by The Wall Street Journal that Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen had orchestrated a series of payments to two women in the months leading up to the 2016 election, in order to prevent them from speaking publicly about their past sexual relationships with Trump. The scandal unfolded as an odd shadow of the at-the-time-ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian election interference in 2016. Both stories concerned behind-the-scenes efforts to clinch Trump the presidency, only where one involved Russia’s military intelligence agency, the other featured a former Playboy model and an adult-film star. In August 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of lying to Congress about Trump’s entanglement with Russia—and, on the same day, also admitted to campaign-finance violations related to his coordination of the payments. The argument by federal prosecutors was that the payouts to the two women constituted an unreported in-kind donation to the Trump campaign.

The path from that 2018 plea deal to today is a strange and winding one. The federal government eventually declined to bring charges against Trump; the Manhattan district attorney’s office picked up the investigation, indicting the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer on tax fraud but not Trump himself; then the hush-money probe seemingly went dead, to the vocal frustration of the prosecutor hired to pursue the case. Then, in January 2023, the investigation suddenly sprang to life again, with reports that a New York grand jury was hearing new witnesses.

The past few weeks have been a very Trumplike stew of sound and fury, involving little information but a great deal of punditry as onlookers struggled to understand what might be happening. And the next few days will likely look much the same: With the indictment sealed, it’s hard to say much new. Reportedly, District Attorney Alvin Bragg is negotiating with Trump’s team about the process of the New York arraignment. The charges will become public when Trump appears in court. Whatever comes of it, Trump will go down in history as the first president to be twice impeached, and the first to be indicted.

As Bragg’s office geared up for the indictment in recent weeks, some commentators voiced worries about the strength of any case against Trump on the hush-money issue. Among other things, why Bragg suddenly decided to pursue the case is not clear, which risks lending credence to Trump’s claims that he’s the victim of a political prosecution. Until the public sees the evidence against the former president, though, evaluating these concerns remains difficult.

But on the basis of what’s already been reported, it seems fair to say that this is not the case most people thought would lead to Trump’s first turn in a courtroom as a defendant. Special Counsel Jack Smith at the Department of Justice is continuing to investigate the former president’s role in the January 6 insurrection. In Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis appears to be moving closer to seeking indictments over Trump’s effort to interfere in that state’s tallying of the 2020 presidential vote. Both of these cases speak immediately to Trump’s abuses of authority and his desire to seek power at all costs. The hush-money case isn’t entirely separate from those ugly aspects of Trump’s presence on the political stage: It did, after all, involve an effort to meddle in the process of an election, in this instance by denying the public the full scope of available information about the man it would soon elect to high office. But even so, the interference itself does seem a little less urgent—and less weighty—than his involvement in fomenting an insurrection.

There’s something very, well, Trumpy about this: He has a way of making everything sordid. Instead of a dramatic discussion about the meaning of accountability for a president who sought to overthrow the will of the voters to stay in power, we’re arguing about the dirty mechanics of hush-money payments to an adult-film star.

The situation might be merely crass if not for the shadow of violence hanging over it. After announcing that he expected to be indicted on March 21, Trump promised “death and destruction” in a post on his bespoke social-media site, Truth Social. Now he’s busy raging about the indictment as “AN ATTACK ON OUR COUNTRY THE LIKES OF WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE” and “weaponizing our justice system to punish a political opponent.” The ongoing investigations into Trump’s potential responsibility for the insurrection are a reminder of just how serious this rhetoric can get.