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Former President Arraigned

Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg faces an uphill climb for a Trump conviction.

Happy Wednesday! We can’t decide which unnecessary reboot rumored to be in the works excites us more: Shrek or Harry Potter.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan court on Tuesday to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree, marking the first time a former or sitting president has been criminally indicted. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg alleged Trump concealed hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels as part of a larger effort to skirt federal and New York election law, but the charges rely on an untested legal theory and a conviction is far from a slam dunk.
  • A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday denied Trump’s effort to block former aides from testifying before special counsel Jack Smith’s grand jury investigating his efforts to subvert the 2020 election results. The sealed order follows several rulings in favor of Smith compelling testimony from multiple high-profile figures, including former Vice President Mike Pence.
  • The Biden administration announced a new $2.6 billion security assistance package for Ukraine on Tuesday, tapping into previously approved congressional aid to send Ukraine HIMARS ammunition, air defense interceptors, artillery and tank ammunition, grenade launchers, trucks, and mortars. The air defense systems will help Ukraine defend itself against the uptick of missile attacks from Russia ahead of Ukrainian forces’ likely spring counteroffensive.
  • Finland officially joined NATO Tuesday, more than doubling the alliance’s border with Russia and prompting the Kremlin to take unspecified “countermeasures” to bolster its security. Turkey still opposes Sweden’s accession to NATO over accusations it fosters groups Ankara considers terrorists.
  • U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced Tuesday it carried out a strike in Syria earlier in the day that killed a senior ISIS leader, Aydd al-Jabouri, allegedly responsible for organizing terrorist attacks in Turkey and Europe. CENTCOM didn’t specify the strike’s location but said no civilians were killed or injured.
  • The Labor Department reported Tuesday job openings fell from 10.6 million in January to 9.9 million in February, dropping below 10 million for the first time in two years in a sign demand for workers is easing despite a still-tight labor market. 
  • The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office—a data watchdog agency—fined TikTok $15.9 million dollars Tuesday, accusing the company of breaking U.K. data protection laws by allowing children under 13 to use the app despite its own age limits. According to the ICO, Tik Tok didn’t do enough to screen for underage users.
  • Brandon Johnson, a progressive county commissioner and teachers’ union organizer, won Chicago’s mayoral runoff with 51.4 percent of the vote on Tuesday, besting Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Just north, liberal Judge Janet Protasiewicz was elected to the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a runoff election, garnering 55.5 percent of the vote to beat conservative Judge Daniel Kelly and flip the ideological balance of the state’s Supreme Court.
  • Axios reported Tuesday that Democratic North Carolina State Rep. Tricia Cotham is expected to flip her party affiliation to Republican, giving the GOP a supermajority in the middle of a legislative session to oppose Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s agenda. The new veto-proof majority could impose new abortion limits previously halted by the threat of the governor’s veto.
  • Former JPMorgan vice president Kellen Curry, a Republican, announced plans to run for New York’s 3rd Congressional District—becoming GOP Rep. George Santos’ first 2024 primary challenger
  • Meanwhile, Scott Parkinson—a former chief of staff to then-Rep. Ron DeSantis—announced Monday he is seeking the GOP nomination to oppose incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine next year in Virginia.
  • The super PAC backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ prospective presidential bid has reportedly raised $30 million since March 9—more than half of it from donors outside Florida. A state-level pro-DeSantis PAC reportedly has an additional $82 million that could also be transferred to fund a presidential campaign.
  • Roy McGrath, former chief-of-staff to Larry Hogan when he was Maryland’s governor, died Monday in a confrontation with the FBI following a 21-day manhunt after he failed to appear at a federal court in Baltimore. Whether McGrath shot himself or was shot by an FBI agent is not yet clear, but he faced embezzlement and wire-fraud charges over a roughly $250,000 severance package he received when he left his post as the head of the Maryland Environmental Service to join Hogan’s office.

Is There a There There?

Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits with his defense team in a Manhattan court during his arraignment on April 4, 2023. (Photo by Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits with his defense team in a Manhattan court during his arraignment on April 4, 2023. (Photo by Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images)

Of all the days to have a quiet City Hall wedding in lower Manhattan, these two certainly picked the loudest.

The happy couple emerged from City Hall next to a crowd that included three members of Congress, a man decked in MAGA gear spinning basketballs on an American flag, Times Square’s infamous naked cowboy, and a New York-based member of your TMD team—all waiting for the arrival and arraignment of former President Donald Trump. Congratulations to the newlyweds! May you have better timing on future life milestones.

As expected—and relentlessly documented by hours of cable news footage featuring planes flying, cars driving, and police officers standing around—Trump traveled to a Manhattan courthouse yesterday and pleaded not guilty to 34 low-level felonies related to alleged hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 presidential election. District Attorney Alvin Bragg still needs to prove his case in court, but the indictment and statement of facts released yesterday broadly matched earlier reporting—and generally failed to convince even anti-Trump legal analysts that the charges will stick. 

We’ve noted previously Bragg seemed to have a lackluster case, and the documents unsealed Tuesday didn’t provide any hitherto unexpected knockout punch. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, now-former Trump attorney Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000—reportedly to keep her from going public about an affair she’d had with Trump. Cohen alleges the Trump Organization reimbursed him and made accompanying payments totaling $420,000, which it falsely recorded as a legal retainer. 

Bragg alleges Cohen and Trump worked together with David Pecker, CEO of American Media—which publishes the National Enquirer—to silence Daniels, another woman who claimed to have had sex with Trump, and a doorman who said Trump fathered a child out of wedlock. According to Bragg, Pecker wanted to dump the National Enquirer’s rights to the doorman’s exclusive after determining the story was false, but Cohen told him to wait until after the presidential election. Similarly, Bragg alleges Trump urged Cohen to delay the second woman’s hush money payment as long as possible—and said they could skip paying altogether if they successfully stalled until after the election, because at that point the story’s publication wouldn’t matter.

To turn charges of falsifying business records—otherwise a misdemeanor—into felonies, Bragg plans to argue Trump mislabeled Cohen’s compensation in order to cover up a campaign finance crime. Yesterday’s charging documents didn’t lay out exactly which election laws Bragg intends to argue were broken, but the statement of facts provided a hint by noting Cohen has already pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations in connection with the Daniels payments—violations Bragg alleges were intended to bolster Trump’s election chances. 

Relying on Cohen’s guilty plea could save Bragg the difficult task of proving Trump also violated campaign finance rules. Although Cohen made the supposed hush-money payments ahead of the election, the allegedly falsified records those payments sparked weren’t created until afterward—a timeline problem for a prosecutor arguing they were intended to influence the 2016 election results. Declaring Cohen’s violation the relevant issue sidesteps that trap. “It’s not so much that Trump is trying to cover up his own crimes,” attorney and legal commentator Gabriel Malor told The Dispatch. “The allegation here is that Trump is trying to cover up Cohen’s crime.”

Still, the charging documents did little to reassure progressives already worried Bragg’s case will fail. It relies on an untested legal theory—can the district attorney successfully bring state charges relying on a federal campaign crime over which he has no jurisdiction? If not, he’d need to demonstrate a New York State election crime, a possibility Bragg referenced in a press conference but didn’t outline in detail. “The indictment doesn’t specify [the second crime the falsified business records were intended to conceal] because the law does not so require,” Bragg said. Despite his ambiguity on the underlying charges, he was adamant about one thing: “We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct.”

As he attempts to secure a conviction, Bragg will have to deal with another weakness in his case: the disgraced attorney at its core. “Michael Cohen is the star witness, and Michael Cohen is an acknowledged liar,” Malor said. “The defense team is going to hammer that over and over.” Still, supporting testimony from other witnesses—drawn from Trump’s company and the media outlets that allegedly helped squash embarrassing stories—would bolster Cohen’s credibility. Even then, the former president’s attorneys will likely try to blow up the foundation of Bragg’s case by arguing the checks, invoices, and ledger entries the indictment cites are personal documents rather than business ones. Although the checks were processed through the Trump Organization, the funds in question came from Trump’s personal accounts.

Trump’s allies reacted to the charges pretty much as you’d expect. In an interview with The Dispatch outside the courthouse, a Trump supporter labeled Braggs’ case “disgusting political persecution.” GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—one of just a handful of Republican members of Congress to show up in New York Tuesday—compared the former president’s arrest to the trials faced by Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela. She attempted to deliver a speech through a megaphone outside the courthouse arguing Bragg’s case is “the persecution of an innocent man,” but she was quickly drowned out by counter-protesters and whisked away by security.

But Trump’s allies weren’t the only ones questioning Bragg’s judgment: Even Sen. Mitt Romney—no MAGA-nator—issued a statement expressing disappointment with the developments. “I believe President Trump’s character and conduct make him unfit for office,” he said. “Even so, I believe the New York prosecutor has stretched to reach felony criminal charges in order to fit a political agenda. No one is above the law, not even former presidents, but everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law.” President Joe Biden declined to comment on the proceedings.

Despite speculation in recent days Trump wanted to turn his arraignment into a spectacle, the former president was uncharacteristically subdued on Tuesday, getting in and out of the courthouse as quickly as possible and declining to address the throngs of cameras that were assembled. Even inside the courtroom, according to a transcript of the hour-long affair, Trump spoke only six times: “not guilty,” “yes,” “okay, thank you,” “yes,” “I do,” “yes.”

He had much more to say once he was back home at Mar-a-Lago. “The only crime that I’ve committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it,” he told a crowd of supporters assembled in the club’s main ballroom. “As it turns out, virtually everybody that has looked at this case—including RINOs, and even hardcore Democrats—say there is no crime and that it should never have been brought.” Over the course of the next 30 minutes, he went on to air grievances he has with Bragg, Bragg’s wife, Judge Juan Merchan, Merchan’s wife, Merchan’s daughter, Atlanta District Attorney Fani Willis, New York Attorney General Letitia James, and Special Counsel Jack Smith.

If it wasn’t clear after his “I am your retribution” speech a few weeks ago, it is now: Trump’s 2024 campaign will be powered primarily by grievance and vengeance.

Whether that’s a recipe for success is yet to be determined. Although prominent right-wing commentator Mark Levin seemed to throw his weight behind the former president last night—he said he likes other candidates but views Trump as singularly capable of fighting back against the Left—Fox News host and former GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy questioned whether the constant rehashing of Trump’s alleged tryst with a porn star will actually serve him well in a Republican primary. 

It hasn’t bothered his biggest fans. Trump is surging ahead in GOP primary polling—at least temporarily—leaving Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the dust. His campaign has supposedly brought in $8 million worth of new donations since the indictment came down on Thursday, too. A number of fundraising appeals sent out Thursday featuring a (nonexistent) Trump mugshot will likely bolster those numbers further.

Even if Bragg’s case founders, Trump may yet sink under other legal woes. A California court ordered Daniels yesterday to pay another $122,000 in legal fees to Trump attorneys after losing a libel case to the former president, but he faces potentially more serious charges elsewhere. The Department of Justice is investigating his mishandling of classified documents and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack, while a Georgia grand jury has recommended indictments—possibly to include Trump—over efforts to overturn election results in that state.

While Trump opponents may be hoping for more from future charges, some who showed up to celebrate the arraignment were glad to see something—anything—leveled at the former president. As Manhattan resident Maryellen Novak sees it, “It is good for America for Trump to be finally held accountable on one of many crimes.”

Worth Your Time 

  • This spring marks 20 years since the Bush administration launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a comprehensive initiative to address the AIDS epidemic sweeping Sub-Saharan Africa. The evidence, Josh Zumbrun argues in the Wall Street Journal, makes clear the program was an unmitigated success. “For 2003, the year the plan was launched, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS estimated that two million people died of AIDS, a number that had been rising relentlessly since the disease’s emergence,” he writes. “The number peaked in 2005 and began to fall. For 2021, UNAIDS estimated the disease caused 650,000 deaths.” To more definitively link the decline to PEPFAR, researchers isolated the 12 African countries the program initially focused on and compared trends to similar nations: “These countries were ‘all tracking the same way in the five to six years prior’ to the launch of the U.S. AIDS initiative, Dr. [Eran] Bendavid said. Then, as soon as the program begins in the focus countries, ‘you see the number of antiretrovirals goes way up, mortality goes way down’—but in the nonfocus countries mortality continues to rise.”
  • Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markova is doing the important work of diplomacy for her war-torn country—at D.C.’s most exclusive parties, Ben Terris reports for the Washington Post. “For Markarova, being in the mix—to use the local parlance—actually comes closer to being a matter of life and death,” he writes. “She is the face of her country in this all-important foreign capital at a time when Ukraine cannot afford to be anything but highly visible to influential Americans. That can mean whipsawing, mentally, between the fog of war and the din of polite company. It can mean hearing about people she knows dying—and then, moments later, walking into a room full of expectant strangers with a gracious smile. ‘If you want to explain to people and engage people who are not at war, you have to engage them in a way they understand,’ the ambassador says. ‘So, if I were to go in military camouflage everywhere and say, ‘It’s war! It’s war! Wake up!’ people would say I’m, you know, a crazy person.’ You can’t cry at a party, either. It might make people uncomfortable. It might make people think she’s weak, when the moment requires strength. So, she smiles. ‘But that doesn’t mean I didn’t cry after,’ she says.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • What was it like in front of the Manhattan courthouse where Trump was arraigned? What effect will the indictment have on the primaries? Is Ron DeSantis the next Richard Nixon? Kevin was joined by Drucker and TMD’s own Grayson Logue on last night’s Dispatch Live (🔒) to discuss all that and more. Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here
  • In the newsletters: Haley checks in on the debt ceiling negotiations in the House, Nick offers some (🔒) pre-punditry on the Wisconsin Supreme Court run-off, and Sarah predicts another (🔒) great migration. “Declining birth rates and blue → red migration will have fascinating cultural effects in the long term,” she writes. “But the political effects may be greater in the short term because of all the things we don’t yet know.” 
  • On the podcasts: Jonah talks UFOs with Hot Air’s weekend editor Jazz Shaw in an eagerly awaited follow-up to last week’s episode with Avi Loeb.  
  • On the site today: Jonah predicts that more Republican repudiations of Trump are on the horizon and Price takes a deep dive into the other legal woes facing the former president.

Let Us Know

If Alvin Bragg’s goal is to enforce the law fairly and without fear or favor, did he do the right thing by bringing these charges against Donald Trump?

If Alvin Bragg’s goal is to advance the Democratic Party’s political interests, did he do the right thing by bringing these charges against Donald Trump?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.