According to the indictment, the business record falsifications were done “with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof.” Though no other crime is charged, the statement of facts accompanying the indictment accuses Trump of violating election laws. It’s the connection to another crime that turns falsifying business records from a misdemeanor into a felony.
Observers from across the political spectrum have been skeptical of the legal theory that underlies Bragg’s case. As The New York Times reported in March, “Combining the criminal charge with a violation of state election law would be a novel legal theory for any criminal case, let alone one against the former president, raising the possibility that a judge or appellate court could throw it out or reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor.” Trump, in other words, may still wriggle out of this predicament.
As I’ve argued before, if Trump’s role in the hush-money payments broke the law, it’s a serious matter, because those payments helped him get elected, and the plot to cover them up sent his former lawyer to prison. Trump, the statement of facts says, “orchestrated a scheme with others to influence the 2016 presidential election by identifying and purchasing negative information about him to suppress its publication and benefit the defendant’s electoral prospects.” If this is true, it’s perverse to suggest that Trump’s success in this scheme — represented by him winning the presidency — is a reason not to prosecute him.
Nevertheless, for all the hype going into Tuesday, the indictment feels anticlimactic. “True and accurate business records are important everywhere, to be sure,” said Bragg in his news conference after the arraignment. “They are all the more important in Manhattan, the financial center of the world.” Trump, like everyone else, should be held accountable if he failed to keep such records. We’re not owed an indictment commensurate with his depravity. Still, these are hard charges to get excited about.
Indeed, what’s struck me over the last two days in New York is a distinct lack of excitement. Many who detest Trump, I suspect, have lost faith in the ability of the legal system to hold him to account. And while his supporters may threaten civil war, not many of them seem willing to brave Manhattan, which they’ve been told is a crime-ridden hellhole.