NEW YORK -- Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, prosecutors and defense lawyers said Thursday, making him the first former U.S. president to face a criminal charge and jolting his bid to retake the White House next year.
The charges remained under seal late Thursday, but the investigation centered on payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of an extramarital sexual encounter. Prosecutors said they were working to coordinate Trump's surrender, which could happen early next week. They did not say whether they intended to seek prison time in the event of a conviction, a development that wouldn't prevent Trump from assuming the presidency.
The indictment, after years of investigations into Trump's business, political and personal dealings, injects a local district attorney's office into the heart of a national presidential race and ushers in criminal proceedings in a city that the ex-president for decades called home. Arriving at a time of deep political divisions, the charges are likely to reinforce rather than reshape dueling perspectives of those who see accountability as long overdue and those who, like Trump, feel the Republican is being targeted for political purposes by a Democratic prosecutor.
Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly assailed the investigation, called the indictment "political persecution" and predicted it would damage Democrats in 2024. In a statement confirming the charges, defense lawyers Susan Necheles and Joseph Tacopina said Trump "did not commit any crime. We will vigorously fight this political prosecution in court."
District Attorney Alvin Bragg left his office Thursday evening without commenting.
The first sign that an indictment was imminent on Thursday came just before 2 p.m., when the three lead prosecutors on the Trump investigation walked into the lower Manhattan building where the grand jury was sitting. One of them carried a copy of the penal law, which was most likely used to read the criminal statutes to the grand jurors before they voted.
Nearly three hours later, the prosecutors walked into the court clerk's office through a back door to begin the official process of filing the indictment, arriving about two minutes before the office closed for the day.
The case centers on well-chronicled allegations from a period in 2016 when Trump's celebrity past collided with his political ambitions. Prosecutors for months scrutinized money paid to porn actor Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, whom he feared would go public with claims that they had extramarital sexual encounters with him.
The timing of the indictment appeared to come as a surprise to Trump campaign officials following news reports that criminal charges were likely weeks away. The former president was at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate, on Thursday and filmed an interview with a conservative commentator earlier in the day.
The indictment sets up a never-before-seen spectacle -- a former president having his fingerprints and mug shot taken, and then facing arraignment. For security reasons, his booking is expected to be carefully choreographed to avoid crowds inside or outside the courthouse.
The prosecution also means that Trump will have to simultaneously fight for his freedom and political future, while also fending off potentially more perilous legal threats, including investigations into attempts by him and his allies to undo the 2020 presidential election as well as into the hoarding of hundreds of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
Indeed, New York was until recently seen as an unlikely contender to be the first place to prosecute Trump, who continues to face long-running investigations in Atlanta and Washington that could also result in charges. Unlike those inquiries, the Manhattan case includes allegations against Trump that occurred before he became president, had already been examined but not charged by federal prosecutors and is unrelated to much-publicized efforts to overturn the election.
The indictment comes as Trump seeks to reassert control of the Republican Party and stave off a slew of onetime allies who may threaten his bid for the presidential nomination. An expected leading rival in the race, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, called the indictment "un-American" in a statement Thursday night that pointedly did not mention Trump's name.
TRUMP: 'COMPLETELY INNOCENT'
Trump reacted to the news of the indictment in familiar fashion, calling it "Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history," as well as a "Witch-Hunt" fueled by "Radical Left Democrats."
"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 statement.
His statement cited a laundry list of grievances over past investigations, including his two impeachment trials and last year's FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate for classified documents. The former president criticized Bragg for investigating him rather than focusing on crime in New York and claimed the indictment would strengthen him and his movement.
"I believe this Witch-Hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden," he said.
Trump's campaign quickly released a fundraising appeal referencing the indictment. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who prosecuted Trump's first impeachment in the Senate, also asked donors to contribute to his U.S. Senate campaign following the news.
In a post on the ex-president's Truth Social platform, Trump's son Eric Trump called the indictment "third world prosecutorial misconduct. It is the opportunistic targeting of a political opponent in a campaign year."
In bringing the charges, Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, is embracing an unusual case that was investigated by two previous sets of prosecutors, both of which declined to take the politically explosive step of seeking Trump's indictment. The case may also turn in part on the testimony of a key witness, Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to charges arising from the hush money payments, including making false statements.
The probe's fate seemed uncertain until word got out in early March that Bragg had invited Trump to testify before a grand jury, a signal that prosecutors were close to bringing charges.
Trump's attorneys declined the invitation, but a lawyer closely allied with the former president briefly testified in an effort to undercut Cohen's credibility.
Trump himself raised anticipation that he would be indicted soon, issuing a statement earlier this month in which he predicted an imminent arrest and called for protests. He did not repeat that call in a fresh statement Thursday, but the New York Police Department told its 36,000 officers to be fully mobilized and ready to respond to any potential protests or unrest.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., urged people not to protest, but directed relevant congressional committees to determine "if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions."
PAYMENT TO PORN STAR
Late in the 2016 presidential campaign, Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to keep her silent about what she says was a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier after they met at a celebrity golf tournament.
Cohen was then reimbursed by Trump's company, the Trump Organization, which also rewarded the lawyer with bonuses and extra payments logged internally as legal expenses. Over several months, Cohen said, the company paid him $420,000.
Earlier in 2016, Cohen also arranged for the publisher of the supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer to pay Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 to squelch her story of a Trump affair in a journalistically dubious practice known as "catch-and-kill."
The payments to the women were intended to buy secrecy, but they backfired almost immediately as details of the arrangements leaked to the news media.
Federal prosecutors in New York ultimately charged Cohen in 2018 with violating federal campaign finance laws, arguing that the payments amounted to impermissible help to Trump's presidential campaign. Cohen pleaded guilty to those charges and unrelated tax evasion counts and served time in federal prison.
Trump -- obliquely referred to in charging documents as "Individual 1" -- was implicated in court filings as having knowledge of the arrangements, but U.S. prosecutors at the time balked at bringing charges against him. The Justice Department has a longtime policy against prosecuting a sitting president in federal court.
Bragg's predecessor as district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., then took up the investigation in 2019. While that probe initially focused on the hush money payments, Vance's prosecutors moved on to other matters, including an examination of Trump's business dealings and tax strategies.
Vance ultimately charged the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer with tax fraud related to fringe benefits paid to some of the company's top executives.
The hush money matter became known around the district attorney's office as the "zombie case," with prosecutors revisiting it periodically but never opting to bring charges.
Bragg saw it differently. After the Trump Organization was convicted on the tax fraud charges in December, he brought fresh eyes to the well-worn case, hiring longtime white-collar prosecutor Matthew Colangelo to oversee the probe and convening a new grand jury.
Cohen became a key witness, meeting with prosecutors nearly two dozen times, turning over emails, recordings and other evidence and testifying before the grand jury.
Trump has long decried the Manhattan investigation as "the greatest witch hunt in history." He has also lashed out at Bragg, calling the prosecutor, who is Black, racist against white people.
In New York, it can be a crime to falsify business records, and Bragg's office is likely to build the case around that charge, according to people with knowledge of the matter and outside legal experts.
But to charge falsifying business records as a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, Bragg's prosecutors must show that Trump's "intent to defraud" included an effort to commit or conceal a second crime.
That second crime could be a violation of election law. Bragg's prosecutors might argue that the payment to Daniels represented an illicit contribution to Trump's campaign: The money silenced Daniels, aiding his candidacy at a crucial time.
"Campaign finance violations may seem like small potatoes next to possible charges for his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election, but they also go to the heart of the integrity of the electoral process," said Jerry H. Goldfeder, a special counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP and a recognized expert in New York state election law.
If Trump were ultimately convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of four years, although prison time would not be mandatory.
Any trial is months away. It will take time for Trump's lawyers to argue that the case should be thrown out. That timeline raises the extraordinary possibility of a trial unfolding in the thick of the 2024 presidential campaign.
The criminal charges in New York are the latest salvo in a profound schism between Trump and his hometown -- a reckoning for a onetime favorite son who grew rich and famous building skyscrapers, hobnobbing with celebrities and gracing the pages of the city's gossip press.
Trump, who famously riffed in 2016 that he "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" and "wouldn't lose voters," now faces a threat to his liberty in a borough where more than 75% of voters -- many of them potential jurors -- went against him in the last election.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. SIsak, Eric Tucker, Colleen Long, Bobby Caina Calvan, Jill Colvin and Jennifer Peltz of The Associated Press; by Ben Protess, Jonah E. Bromwich, William K. Rashbaum, Kate Christobek, Nate Schweber and Sean Piccoli of The New York Times; and by Sarah D. Wire and Arit John of The Los Angeles Times (TNS).
Trump supporters "Maga" Mary Kelley, right, of Lake Worth, and Kathy Clark of Lantana carry flags as they protest following the news that former President Donald Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, Thursday, March 30, 2023, near his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump has been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, prosecutors and defense lawyers said Thursday, making him the first former U.S. president to face a criminal charge and jolting his bid to retake the White House next year. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
New York City police officers on scooters line up outside Manhattan criminal courts building, Thursday, March 30, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Prosecutors Matthew Colangelo, left, and Susan Hoffinger, right, leave a state office building , Thursday March 30, 2023, in New York. A lawyer for Donald Trump said Thursday he's been told that the former president has been indicted in New York on charges involving payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of an extramarital sexual encounter. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg leaves the District Attorney's office in New York, Thursday, March 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
FILE - President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. A lawyer for Trump said Thursday, March 30, 2023, that he has been told that the former president has been indicted in New York on charges involving payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of an extramarital sexual encounter. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
FILE - Former President Donald Trump announces he is running for president for the third time as he smiles while speaking at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Nov. 15, 2022. A lawyer for Trump said Thursday, March 30, 2023, that he has been told that the former president has been indicted in New York on charges involving payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of an extramarital sexual encounter. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Mary Kelley waves a Trump flag Thursday near the former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., after reports of his indictment. (The New York Times/Josh Ritchie)
District Attorney Alvin Bragg (top left) leaves the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse on Thursday after a grand jury indicted former President Donald Trump. (The New York Times/Dave Sanders)