For Democrats, Donald Trump’s indictment was proof that no one, not even a former president, was above the law. For Republicans, it was the culmination of a years-long political witch-hunt designed to take down a polarizing former president as he stands again for re-election.
The unprecedented move by a Manhattan grand jury triggered a wave of predictably partisan responses, reflecting a nation deeply divided over Trump and his presidency, which ended after his failed attempts to cling to power culminated in a deadly assault on the US Capitol. News on Thursday that Trump had become the first ever former US president to face criminal charges drew an audible gasp on Fox News, as broadcasters and viewers processed the extraordinary development.
Though the charges remain under seal as of late Thursday, the case centered on payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims from the porn star Stormy Daniels that she had an extramarital affair with Trump. A spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney’s office confirmed the indictment and said prosecutors were working with the president’s legal team to coordinate a surrender.
Trump reacted angrily in a lengthy statement that denounced the grand jury vote as “Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history”.
He framed the indictment as an abuse of power and part of a wider conspiracy pushed by his political opponents since he “came down the golden escalator at Trump Tower” to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015. Trump was the first president to be impeached twice, first over his efforts to pressure Ukraine’s president into announcing a criminal investigation into Joe Biden, and later for his role inciting the violence that unfolded in his name on 6 January 2021.
“The Democrats have lied, cheated and stolen in their obsession with trying to ‘Get Trump,’ but now they’ve done the unthinkable – indicting a completely innocent person in an act of blatant Election Interference,” he said in a series of posts on his social media platform, Truth Social. “Never before in our Nation’s history has this been done.”
Some of his most lashing rhetoric was reserved for the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who Trump accused of “doing Joe Biden’s dirty work”.
Many top-ranking Republicans echoed Trump’s response, sending a flurry of fundraising emails on the news that the leading contender for their party’s nomination had been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury’s decision.
The notional field of 2024 Republican presidential candidates have trodden carefully around Trump’s legal woes even as they prepare to challenge him for the nomination.
Enough of this witch-hunt bullshit
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is seen as Trump’s strongest potential opponent should he declare his candidacy, called the indictment “un-American” and assailed Bragg as a “[George] Soros-backed” Manhattan prosecutor who was “stretching the law to target a political opponent”.
Without mentioning Trump by name, DeSantis said he would not oblige an extradition request should Trump, a Florida resident, refuse to surrender voluntarily as he is expected to do on Tuesday.
Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s UN ambassador and is now running against him for the nomination, said the indictment was “more about revenge than it is about justice”. So too has Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice-president who is contemplating a run for president.
“I think the unprecedented indictment of a former president of the United States on a campaign finance issue is an outrage,” Pence said. “And it appears for millions of Americans to be nothing more than a political prosecution.”
The House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, said in a statement that Bragg had “irreparably damaged our country in an attempt to interfere in our presidential election”.
“As he routinely frees violent criminals to terrorize the public, he weaponized our sacred system of justice against President Donald Trump,” McCarthy said. “The American people will not tolerate this injustice, and the House of Representatives will hold Alvin Bragg and his unprecedented abuse of power to account.”
Ohio congressman Jim Jordan, one of Trump’s fiercest allies in Congress, tweeted simply: “Outrageous.” Jordan has sought to use his perch atop the powerful House judiciary committee to attack Bragg and undermine the investigation, while pointing his gavel at the Biden administration.
The Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Trump loyalist, suggested the House retaliate by impeaching Biden “now that the gloves are off”.
“Enough of this witch-hunt bullshit,” she concluded.
Congressman Ronny Jackson, a Texas Republican who served as Trump’s White House physician before being elected to Congress, vowed vengeance on Twitter: “These cowardly Democrats HATE Trump and HATE his voters even more,” he wrote. “When Trump wins, THESE PEOPLE WILL PAY!!”
The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who has sought to move his party beyond Trump did not immediately weigh in. However, Lindsey Graham, the Republican senior senator from South Carolina, issued a statement calling the indictment “one of the most irresponsible decisions in American history by any prosecutor”.
The White House declined to comment on the indictment of Biden’s predecessor and potential opponent in 2024. Departing the White House on Friday morning, Biden told reporters he had “no comment at all” on the matter.
But many Democrats, including those who had sought to hold Trump accountable for his conduct as president, sounded a note of satisfaction after years of insisting that no one was above the law. There were also appeals for calm, after the president’s threat last week that an indictment could bring “possible death and destruction”.
Some Democrats welcomed, even celebrated, Trump’s reversal of fortune after decades of legal scrutiny and years of efforts to hold him accountable for a presidency that they say shattered democratic norms. But the overwhelming sentiment shared by Democratic lawmakers and leaders was to insist, as they have since the earliest days of his presidency, that the grand jury’s decision was proof “no one is above the law”.
Nancy Pelosi, who presided over the House as speaker during both of Trump’s impeachments, said: “The grand jury has acted upon the facts and the law. No one is above the law, and everyone has the right to a trial to prove innocence. Hopefully, the former president will peacefully respect the system, which grants him that right.”
The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, said there should be “no outside political influence, intimidation or interference in the case” and appealed for calm in the wake of the indictment.
A nation of laws must hold the rich and powerful accountable, even when they hold high office
Some Democrats went further, suggesting that Trump should be held accountable for far more than his role his role in hush-money payments to a porn star.
The California congressman Adam Schiff, the Democrat who led the prosecution in Trump’s first impeachment trial, said Trump’s “unlawful conduct” was unprecedented in American history.
“A nation of laws must hold the rich and powerful accountable, even when they hold high office,” said Schiff, who is running for Senate in the state. “Especially when they do. To do otherwise is not democracy.”
“No one is above the law,” Congresswoman Barbara Lee, another California Democrat running for Senate, wrote on Twitter. “Now do the rest of his crimes.”
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a watchdog organization in Washington, called Trump the “most corrupt president in American history”.
“He has spent his entire political career dodging accountability for his wanton disregard for the law. It is finally catching up to him,” its president, Noah Bookbinder, said in a statement. “The charges in New York are the first ever brought against him, but they will not be the last.”
This is not the only legal challenge Trump faces. He remains the subject of three separate criminal investigations, involving his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election that culminated in the January 6 assault on the US Capitol as well as handling of classified documents that he improperly kept after leaving the White House.
Clark Brewster, a lawyer representing Daniels, said Trump’s indictment was “no cause for joy”.
“The hard work and conscientiousness of the grand jurors must be respected,” he said. “Now let truth and justice prevail. No one is above the law.”
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer and a key witness who testified that he arranged the payments to Daniels on Trump’s behalf, said he took “solace in validating the adage that no one is above the law, not even a former president”.
“Today’s indictment is not the end of this chapter, but, rather, just the beginning,” said Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to campaign finance charges related to his role in arranging payments for Daniels ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
As the news circulated online, and additional security measures were put in place in Manhattan on Thursday night, there were scattered calls for protests. Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump administration official, called for the former president’s supporters to “peacefully protest” against the indictment. “This is a time of sorting,” Gorka said on former Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s War Room broadcast.
Meanwhile, Yusef Salaam, who was exonerated in the infamous Central Park jogger case more than a decade after Trump placed full-page newspaper ads in several New York newspapers calling for the death penalty for him and four other Black and Latino teens wrongly accused of raping a white woman, issued a one-word statement: “Karma.”
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