Just before the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in New York closed for the day on Thursday, prosecutors walked into the clerk’s office to file some paperwork.
This was no ordinary documentation. The papers confirmed that for the first time ever a former US president was to face criminal charges.
The move, which marked the culmination of an investigation which had been under way for some time by the district attorney in New York, will throw both politics in general in the United States and the 2024 presidential election right up in the air.
In New York the decision on whether a person should be charged is determined by a group of ordinary citizens who serve on a grand jury. The grand jury hears evidence from prosecutors as well as witnesses and then votes on whether charges are warranted.
The prosecutors arrived at the Manhattan courthouse on Thursday evening after members of a grand jury of about 23 people, which had been hearing about the investigation over recent weeks, voted formally to indict Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States.
No previous president of the United States has ever been charged with a crime, let alone someone who is the frontrunner for his party in the race to win back the White House.
The indictment will not legally prevent Trump running again; nor even would a conviction in a criminal court. A century ago a socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, ran his campaign from a jail cell where he was serving a sentence for criticising conscription for the first World War.
The charges Trump will face are not known, and are likely to emerge only when he makes his initial appearance in court in a process known as an arraignment.
However, the investigation related to the payment of $130,000 to porn actor Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an affair with Trump in 2006. Trump has strongly denied there was any affair and has condemned the whole investigation as “politically motivated”.
A fortnight ago Trump said , that he was to be arrested the following Tuesday. He urged his supporters to protest – a move which many observers saw as an echo of his call to his followers to rally in Washington on January 6th 2021, after which some attacked the US Capitol building.
Around the court building complex in Lower Manhattan earlier this week, some police crowd control barriers were in place and others stood nearby, ready to be deployed quickly if needed.
On Thursday night the New York Police Department ordered all its uniformed members to turn up for duty from 7am on Friday “as a precautionary measure”.
The normal procedure following an indictment would be for prosecutors to arrange for the individual concerned to report to the district attorney’s office where he or she would be arrested, fingerprinted and photographed before being brought before a judge. However, Trump is no ordinary individual. In the first place as a former president he has a US secret service security detail with him at all times.
The arrest and arraignment of Trump would, of course, be both a political and media sensation. If and when Trump is brought before a judge it is expected he will be asked to enter a plea before being released pending further court hearings.
The unprecedented nature of the events raise a series of questions.
Will Trump, for example, try to turn the process into a political spectacle or make a speech to condemn the prosecution and prosecutors? Will the district attorney’s office require the former president to be handcuffed? Will the “mugshot” photograph of him that will be taken by authorities be released publicly?
Already some Trump allies have suggested the mugshot could become the campaign poster for the 2024 presidential election.
Other questions centre on the reaction of his supporters and what it all means for Trump’s future in politics.
Trump, at this point, is the frontrunner to secure the Republican Party nomination to run for the presidency in just over 18 months time.
But apart from the investigation in New York, he has other potential legal worries.
He faces investigations in Georgia and Washington, related to his efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory and his handling of classified material at Mar-a-Lago, his home and private club in Florida.
The initial reaction of many top Republicans has been to condemn the New York district attorney for bringing the case and to echo Trump’s assertion that this was done for political motives.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis, considered by many to be Trump’s main rival for the Republican nomination, said: “The weaponisation of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head.”
Trump’s former vice-president, Mike Pence, called the indictment an “outrage”.
Some Republicans have suggested that the prosecution will generate sympathy for the former president.
But ultimately Republican politicians will have to decide whether to continue to back Trump or risk seeing the controversy surrounding him drag down the party’s prospects in 2024.
Some Republicans point out thatthe allegations relate to events over six years ago that other prosecutors decided not to pursue.
However, a former top prosecutor in New York, appointed under the Trump administration, tells a different story in his recent memoir.
Prosecutors in New York, who investigated and charged Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen over the payment to Daniels, found he had acted at the direction of the former president. Cohen was subsequently jailed but Trump was not prosecuted.
Geoffrey Berman, the former US attorney in the southern district of New York, argued in his book that Trump’s then attorney general Bill Barr had tried to kill the ongoing investigation and even suggested that Cohen’s conviction should be reversed.
Trump, for his part has rejected the allegations against him and has sought to portray the investigation by the district attorney in Manhattan, Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, as interference in the 2024 election process. He has repeatedly denied having a relationship with Daniels.
“I never had an affair with her. It’s all made up,” Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News in an interview broadcast on Monday.
Daniels alleges she had sex with Trump after she met him at a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe, Nevada in 2006.
In the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, she was paid $130,000 in a deal with Cohen designed to buy her silence.
Cohen was jailed in late 2018 over campaign finance issues and lying to Congress and has become a strong and vocal critic of the former president.
There has been a general suggestions in US media that the district attorney’s case centres around allegations that the business records of Trump’s company were falsified to cover up the reimbursement to Cohen of the money he paid over to Daniels.
However, any such case would have serious complications.
Under New York law falsifying business records is a misdemeanor rather than a felony, unless it can be associated with a more serious crime, perhaps such as breaches of election law. However, no details have emerged as yet in relation to the indictment.