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Saturday, April 01, 2023

How Alvin Bragg Resurrected the Case Against Donald Trump

How Alvin Bragg Resurrected the Case Against Donald Trump

“A year ago, the investigation into the former president appeared from the outside to be over. But a series of crucial turning points led to this week’s indictment.

Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, and several other men in dark suits leave a government office building.
Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, leaves his office after a grand jury indicted former President Donald J. Trump over a $130,000 hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.Dave Sanders for The New York Times

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One year ago this week, the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into Donald J. Trump appeared to be dead in the water.

The two leaders of the investigation had recently resigned after the new district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, decided not to charge Mr. Trump at that point. Amid a fierce backlash to his decision — and a brutal start to his tenure — Mr. Bragg insisted that the investigation was not over. But a disbelieving media questioned why, if the effort was still moving forward, there were few signs of it.

“Unless y’all are great poker players,” Mr. Bragg told The New York Times in an early April 2022 interview, “you don’t know what we’re doing.”

What they were doing, new interviews show, was going back to square one, poring over the reams of evidence that had already been collected by his predecessor.

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For a time, their efforts were haphazard as they examined a wide range of Mr. Trump’s business practices, including whether he had lied about his net worth, which was the focus of the investigation when Mr. Bragg had declined to seek an indictment. But by  July, Mr. Bragg had decided to assign several additional prosecutors to pursue one particular strand that struck him as promising: a hush-money payment made on Mr. Trump’s behalf to a porn star during the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign.

On Thursday, Mr. Trump was indicted on that strand. He is expected to surrender to the authorities in Manhattan on Tuesday and face arraignment on more than two dozen charges, which will be unveiled at that time.

Journalists and law enforcement officers are seen outside the Manhattan Criminal Court.
Members of the media gather outside Manhattan Criminal Court on Friday, a day after a grand jury indicted former President Donald J. Trump over a $130,000 hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.Dave Sanders for The New York Times

This account of Mr. Bragg’s decision to revive the investigation and point it toward the hush-money arrangement, based on interviews with about a dozen people familiar with the matter, reveals the circuitous, sometimes uncertain road that led to the first criminal charges against a former American president.

Along the way, a key internal skeptic of the investigation became one of its champions; Mr. Bragg shook up the Trump team and hired an experienced lawyer away from the Justice Department to help lead it; and he ultimately found new promise in a key witness he had once disregarded as unreliable. The district attorney was also emboldened late last year when his prosecutors won a conviction of Mr. Trump’s company in an unrelated tax case.

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Last April, Mr. Bragg, a Democrat, had a chance to move on from the ex-president and turn his tenure toward his initial motivation in running for office: reshaping the criminal justice system in Manhattan. Now, his willingness to wager his political future on the case against Mr. Trump will be tested like never before — his success, or failure, is inextricably tied to the former president.

Winning an indictment is one thing. Winning a conviction of Mr. Trump will be far more difficult.

The decision to revisit the case despite his earlier reservations has opened Mr. Bragg to criticism from the former president’s supporters that he is blindly pursuing Mr. Trump.

The case has also exposed the district attorney to a wave of hostile and racist rhetoric from the former president and his supporters. Mr. Bragg, a career prosecutor, has received vivid death threats, including one that was mailed to the office last week.

In a statement on Thursday, after the indictment was reported, Mr. Trump called the case a “political persecution and election interference at the highest level in history,” adding that Mr. Bragg was “a disgrace” and calling himself “a completely innocent person.”

Going Through the Binders

Shortly after Mr. Bragg took office in January 2022, he received a warning.

At the time, he was grappling with the potential case centered on Mr. Trump’s net worth, which two senior prosecutors, Mark F. Pomerantz and Carey Dunne, were presenting to a grand jury.

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The warning came in the form of memos about that investigation, one of which was delivered to Mr. Bragg’s aides by a career prosecutor, Chris Conroy. The memos highlighted potential gaps in the evidence, and darkened the new district attorney’s view of the case he had just inherited.

Mr. Bragg also developed concerns about relying on Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former fixer, questioning whether he had enough knowledge about the intricacies of Mr. Trump’s financial records to be a pivotal witness.

In a series of meetings early last year, Mr. Pomerantz and Mr. Dunne tried to persuade Mr. Bragg that the case, which had been developed under Mr. Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., was solid. Mr. Bragg and his aides remained unconvinced, and soon after the district attorney decided to halt the grand jury presentation, Mr. Pomerantz and Mr. Dunne resigned.

Mr. Cohen, who had met extensively with Mr. Pomerantz, was furious, and demanded that prosecutors return documents that he had provided. (They did.)

Mark Pomerantz
William B. Plowman/NBC, via Getty Images
Carey Dunne
Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times

It seemed as if Mr. Bragg’s decision could carry historic consequences: a brand-new district attorney had just given up a chance to charge Mr. Trump criminally. The political backlash was heated — Mr. Trump is widely loathed in Manhattan — and it was only compounded when a copy of Mr. Pomerantz’s resignation letter was published in The Times: He declared that Mr. Trump had committed multiple felonies.

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Mr. Bragg said the investigation was continuing, but the team was running low on prosecutors. Shortly before he took over the office, three prosecutors who were concerned about the inquiry’s pace had taken on other assignments, leaving the team threadbare. And four months into Mr. Bragg’s tenure, Solomon Shinerock, who had been the lead assistant district attorney on the case for years, stepped back from the investigation into Mr. Trump.

Mr. Bragg and two of his office’s leaders — the head of investigations, Susan Hoffinger, and another top aide, Peter Pope — were not yet clear on a game plan. They issued a smattering of subpoenas and questioned some witnesses but did not appear to gain much traction.

They were also digging into binders that contained the numerous files gathered over the years, files that Mr. Bragg had not yet had time to review in depth.

The research laid the groundwork for a more robust investigation. The remaining members of the team split up into small groups to focus on different topics, including the financial statements and the eye-catching payoff that was the original impetus for Mr. Vance to open an investigation into Mr. Trump in 2018: the hush-money deal.

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A New Team

Building a case around the sordid episode involving the porn star, Stormy Daniels, was hardly a new idea. Mr. Vance’s prosecutors had considered the hush-money payment for so long that some of them began to call it the “zombie case,” because it kept coming back to life. Although Mr. Vance had pivoted to focusing on the former president’s net worth, he never closed the hush-money inquiry.

There was a key difference between Mr. Bragg’s briefings on the net worth case and digging into the hush-money: time. The new district attorney had only weeks to consider the net worth case before it would have been time to seek a vote from the grand jury, whose term was scheduled to expire in late April 2022.

Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney in Cook County, Ill., who is friendly with Mr. Bragg, said that prosecutors running for office are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to the cases they inherit.

“You don’t have the facts, you don’t have the months or years worth of investigation that are there,” she said.

A woman in a dark jacket and light blue tie, surrounded by security guards in dark suits.
Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, surrounded by security personnel on Thursday evening, just before news of the indictment of former President Donald J. Trump by a Manhattan grand jury broke.Anna Watts for The New York Times

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But going through evidence, Mr. Bragg  warmed to the idea of charging Mr. Trump for his role in the hush-money payment. Unlike the net worth case, Mr. Cohen was directly involved: He had made the $130,000 payment to Ms. Daniels, for which Mr. Trump reimbursed him. If the sequence of events that led to the payment were to be illustrated, the former fixer would be the line connecting all the dots.

Ms. Hoffinger contacted Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny J. Davis, to reassure him that the investigation into Mr. Trump was very much alive. Mr. Cohen, she suggested, might still become a valuable witness.

In July, Mr. Bragg built up the Trump team, a sign of his growing confidence. Catherine McCaw, who had garnered attention for her role in the prosecution of Anna Sorokin, the con woman better known as Anna Delvey, joined. So did Rebecca Mangold and Katherine Ellis, prosecutors in the office’s Major Economic Crimes Bureau.

At the time, prosecutors in the district attorney’s office were preparing for another Trump-related trial: In 2021, Mr. Vance had charged the former president’s company and a senior executive, Allen H. Weisselberg, of orchestrating a yearslong tax fraud scheme. In August 2022, Mr. Weisselberg pleaded guilty, but the Trump Organization refused a plea, setting the stage for the highest-profile trial of the district attorney’s tenure.

Mr. Bragg later said he began to think of the two matters as chapters in a book: First would come the trial. Then the investigation into Mr. Trump could progress.

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For the trial, which began on Halloween, Ms. Hoffinger teamed up with Joshua Steinglass, an experienced trial lawyer who specializes in homicide cases. It was part of the district attorney’s philosophy: pairing lawyers with different skills on a single team.

While Ms. Hoffinger and Mr. Steinglass were focused on the trial, Mr. Conroy continued to examine the legal theories underpinning the hush-money case. A chief skeptic of the previous Trump investigation, he was pushing the hush-money one forward.

Joshua Steinglass, a prosecutor in the case against the Trump Organization, wearing a dark suit and tie.
Joshua Steinglass, a prosecutor in the case against the Trump Organization, on the first day of jury selection in October 2022. Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times

During that period, Mr. Bragg and his deputies indicated to associates and outside supporters that he was newly optimistic about building a case against Mr. Trump, The Times reported in November. Shortly before the jurors in the Trump Organization trial began to deliberate, the office announced that it had hired Matthew Colangelo, a former senior Justice Department official who had experience building a civil case against Mr. Trump and who came to be one of the leaders of the Manhattan investigation.

The day after Mr. Colangelo’s hiring was announced, the jury returned its verdict: Mr. Trump’s company was guilty, and Mr. Bragg had won a significant victory.

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In interviews after the win, Mr. Bragg took his “chapter” analogy public. And when asked about the case against Mr. Trump himself, he told reporters that he had “been cautioning people not to read ahead in the book.”

The Grand Jury

For Mr. Bragg, the new year began by impaneling a grand jury to hear evidence in the hush- money case. For his prosecutors, it was a peace summit with Mr. Cohen.

At a meeting in their office in Lower Manhattan — the same building where the new grand jury would soon start to meet — the prosecutors told him they wanted to start fresh, and Mr. Cohen was amenable.

“I went in to 80 Centre St. skeptical and guarded,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview with The Times, referring to the building where the Major Economic Crimes Bureau is. “After a three-hour initial meeting, I left reassured and confident in the team. They were knowledgeable, articulate and professional in a way that made me as comfortable as I was with the previous Pomerantz and Dunne team.”

Michael Cohen, right, in a dark jacket, with his lawyer, Lanny Davis.
Michael Cohen (right) and his lawyer, Lanny Davis, arrive at 80 Centre St. on March 7, for an interview by the district attorney’s office.Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times

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It was the first of at least seven visits Mr. Cohen made to the office this year. In the ensuing meetings, prosecutors grilled him about granular aspects of the hush-money episode. He provided them with documents and his phone.

While Mr. Cohen talked, the prosecutors began presenting evidence to the grand jury. The first witness was David Pecker, the former publisher of The National Enquirer, the tabloid that helped broker Mr. Cohen’s payout to Ms. Daniels. Mr. Pecker was followed by Ms. Daniels’s lawyer and some of Mr. Trump’s employees and campaign aides, most prominently Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks. The process culminated in Mr. Cohen testifying before the panel for more than two days in March.

By then, the parade of witnesses had begun to draw a media crowd outside 80 Centre. The fervor grew when The Times reported that Mr. Bragg had signaled to Mr. Trump’s legal team that he was poised to seek an indictment. And when Mr. Trump prematurely predicted his own arrest two weeks ago, the blocks near the courthouse took on a circuslike atmosphere.

At one point, as court officials were preparing to escort a witness into the grand jury, there was a traffic accident outside the courthouse involving a truck that was packing up from filming a scene of the sequel to the film “Joker”nearby.

All week, no indictment had emerged. But on Thursday afternoon, Chris Conroy, the formerly skeptical prosecutor, walked into 80 Centre Street. In his arms was a copy of the New York State penal law, marked up with sticky notes, to instruct the grand jurors on the law before they took the vote that indicted the former president.

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A man in a dark suit and red tie leaves the Manhattan Criminal Court.
Prosecutor Chris Conroy outside of Manhattan Criminal Court on Thursday.Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Three hours later, Mr. Conroy, Ms. McCaw and the warden of the grand jury left 80 Centre and crossed the street to the building where indictments are filed. Reaching the clerk’s office through a back entrance, they submitted the paperwork two minutes before the office closed for the day.

Nate Schweber, Sean Piccoli and Kate Christobek contributed reporting.

Jonah E. Bromwich covers criminal justice in New York, with a focus on the Manhattan district attorney's office, state criminal courts in Manhattan and New York City's jails. @jonesieman

Ben Protess is an investigative reporter covering the federal government, law enforcement and various criminal investigations into former President Trump and his allies. @benprotess

William K. Rashbaum is a senior writer on the Metro desk, where he covers political and municipal corruption, courts, terrorism and law enforcement. He was a part of the team awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News.“

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