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 Donald Trump.
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 and the former model Karen McDougal that they had extramarital affairs 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, who is running again for president, 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 part of a long litany of investigations he has faced since he “came down the golden escalator at Trump Tower” to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015. He 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. “Never before in our Nation’s history has this been done.”
Trump ratcheted up his attacks on the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, accusing him of “doing Joe Biden’s dirty work” while failing to prosecute crime in New York. Many top-ranking Republicans followed Trump’s lead.
The notional field of 2024 Republican presidential candidates have treaded 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 as is expected, called the indictment “un-American” and assailed Bragg as a “Soros-backed” Manhattan prosecutor who was “stretching the law to target a political opponent”.
He added that as governor of Florida, where Trump has lived since leaving the White House, he would not oblige an extradition request should Trump refuse to surrender voluntarily, which the former president is expected to do on Tuesday.
Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s UN secretary and is now running against him for the nomination, has attacked the investigation. 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 the legitimacy of the various investigations into the former president, while pointing his gavel at the Biden administration.
Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, the 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.
Republican Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina, issued a statement calling the indictment “one of the most irresponsible decisions in American history by any prosecutor”.
“The chief witness for prosecution is a convicted felon, Michael Cohen, whose previous lawyer said he is untrustworthy. Upon scrutiny, this case folds like a cheap suit.”
The White House declined to comment on the indictment of Biden’s predecessor and potential opponent in 2024. 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.
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.”
A nation of laws must hold the rich and powerful accountable, even when they hold high office
Democratic leaders were more muted in their response. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said there should be “no outside political influence, intimidation or interference in the case” and urged calm in response to the indictment.
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. Especially when they do. To do otherwise is not democracy,” Schiff said.
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 is facing. 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 and McDougal ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
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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