NEW YORK, United States (AFP) — A New York grand jury on Thursday indicted Donald Trump over hush money payments made to a porn star, making him the first ever serving or former US president to face criminal charges.
The historic indictment of the 76-year-old Republican — who denies all wrongdoing in connection with the payments made ahead of the 2016 election that sent him to the White House — is certain to upend the current presidential race in which Trump hopes to regain office.
And it will forever mark the legacy of the former leader, who survived two impeachments and had kept prosecutors at bay over everything from the US Capitol riot to missing classified files — only to land in court over a sex scandal involving Stormy Daniels, a 44-year-old adult movie actress.
A New York prosecutor confirmed the indictment and his office said the Republican's lawyers have been contacted to "coordinate his surrender... for arraignment".
"Guidance will be provided when the arraignment date is selected," a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement, adding that the indictment is still sealed.
Trump slammed the indictment as "political persecution and election interference" and vowed it would backfire on his successor Joe Biden, while the former president's son Eric assailed the "opportunistic targeting of a political opponent".
An attorney for Daniels, meanwhile, welcomed the news as proof that "no one is above the law".
"The indictment of Donald Trump is no cause for joy," Clark Brewster tweeted. "Now let truth and justice prevail."
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, said the indictment had "irreparably damaged" the country.
On March 18, Trump had declared he expected to be arrested within days over the payment to Daniels — who received US$130,000 weeks before the election that brought Trump to power, to stop her from going public about a tryst she claims they had a decade earlier.
In predicting his indictment, Trump had issued a call for demonstrations and dark warnings that it could lead to "potential death & destruction" that "could be catastrophic for our country".
His statement set New York on edge for possible protests, but the prospect of a quick indictment had receded as the grand jury panel convened to weigh possible charges against Trump continued to hear witnesses — until Thursday.
Trump's ex-lawyer Michael Cohen, who has testified before the grand jury, told Congress in 2019 that he made the payment to Daniels on Trump's behalf and was later reimbursed.
Prosecutors argued the cheques were not properly registered, and the jury was asked to consider if the suspect accounting was part of a cover-up intended to benefit Trump's election campaign by burying the scandal.
The New York investigation is the first to reach a decision on charges out of three major probes into the former president.
Trump also faces felony investigations in Georgia relating to the 2020 election and in Washington over the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol by the ex-president's supporters, who had hoped to keep him in office after his election loss to Biden.
Trump, who is seen to be the front-runner to be the Republican nominee in the 2024 election, has branded all of the investigations "witch-hunts" and political persecutions.
The chasing pack in the White House race, led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was initially reticent in its criticism of the ex-reality TV star, but has recently begun attacking his character and the whiff of scandal that surrounds him.
Trump staged his first presidential campaign rally in Texas on Saturday, addressing several thousand supporters — far fewer than the 15,000 he had expected — in the city of Waco, Texas.
Maintaining the investigation was over "something that is not a crime, not a misdemeanour, not an affair", Trump told supporters how he had been the victim of "one witch hunt and phony investigation after another".
"This is really prosecutorial misconduct. That's what it's called. The innocence of people makes no difference whatsoever to these radical-left maniacs," he told the rally.
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