NEW YORK, March 31 (Reuters) – Donald Trump is due to be fingerprinted and photographed in a New York courthouse next week as he becomes the first ex-president to face criminal charges, in a case involving a 2016 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.
Trump’s expected appearance before a judge in Manhattan on Tuesday as the Republican mounts a comeback bid for the presidency could further inflame divisions across the country.
For nearly two weeks, Trump has been using the legal threats he confronts to raise money and rally supporters as he seeks his party’s nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden next year.
The first U.S. president to try to overthrow an election defeat, inspiring the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol, has signaled he will continue to campaign even as he faces charges.
“I am not afraid of what’s to come,” he said in a fundraising email on Friday.
Those specific charges have not yet been made public as the indictment remains under seal, but CNN reported on Thursday that Trump faced more than 30 counts related to business fraud.
Susan Necheles, a Trump attorney, told Reuters the former president will plead not guilty.
Another Trump lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, said Trump will not have to wear handcuffs at his court appearance and will likely be released without having to post bail.
“He’s ready to fight. He’s gearing up,” Tacopina told Reuters in a phone interview.
Trump, 76, said on Thursday that he was “completely innocent” and accused Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the Democrat who led the investigation, of trying to damage his electoral chances.
Trump’s claims of political interference have been echoed by many of his fellow Republicans and his potential rivals in the 2024 race.
Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, said the charges send a “terrible message” to the world about U.S. justice.
“I’m very troubled by it,” Pence, a possible 2024 candidate, said at a forum in Washington.
Senior Republicans in the House of Representatives have vowed to investigate Bragg and demanded he hand over documents and other confidential material from the investigation.
Bragg said on Friday that Congress does not have authority to interfere with the case and accused the lawmakers of escalating political tensions. Bragg’s office has been the target of bomb threats in recent weeks.
“You and many of your colleagues have chosen to collaborate with Mr. Trump’s efforts to vilify and denigrate the integrity of elected state prosecutors and trial judges,” Bragg wrote in a letter to Republican lawmakers.
Biden declined to comment on Friday as he left the White House for a trip to storm-ravaged Mississippi.
Trump alleges there are political motivations behind all four criminal investigations he is known to face – including federal probes into his retention of classified documents and attempts to overturn his election defeat, and a separate Georgia probe into his efforts to overturn his loss in that state.
He has also accused Bragg, who is Black, of racial bias.
Officials have stepped up security around the courthouse since Trump on March 18 called on his supporters to protest any arrest. A law enforcement source said on Friday that police would close streets around the courthouse ahead of Tuesday’s expected appearance.
The Manhattan charges will likely be unsealed by a judge in the coming days and Trump will have to travel there to be photographed, fingerprinted and appear in court, which is expected on Tuesday. Necheles, the Trump lawyer, she did not expect charges to be unsealed until that day.
Any potential trial is still at least more than a year away, legal experts said, meaning it could occur during or after the presidential campaign.
Trump appealed earlier this month for nationwide protests, recalling his charged rhetoric ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, and warned last week of potential “death & destruction” if he were charged.
“It’s politics. I think they’re just dying to find a way to keep him from being eligible for running for reelection,” Mark Funk, 58, said at a beer garden in Houston.
Some Republican voters might tire of the drama.
Some 44% of Republicans said Trump should drop out of the race if he is indicted, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week.
HAS ESCAPED LEGAL PERIL BEFORE
Trump has escaped legal peril numerous times since the 1970s, when he joined his family’s real estate business.
In the White House, he weathered two attempts by Congress to remove him from office, over the U.S. Capitol assault and a probe into his campaign’s contacts with Russia in 2016.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office prosecuted Trump’s business on tax-fraud charges last year, leading to a $1.61 million criminal penalty, but Trump himself was not charged.
The presiding judge in that case, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, is expected to oversee the Daniels case as well, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Though it is unclear what specific charges Trump will face, some legal experts have said Bragg might have to rely on untested legal theories to argue that Trump falsified business records to cover up other crimes, such as violating federal campaign-finance law.
Ahead of the indictment, the grand jury heard months of evidence about an alleged $130,000 payment to Daniels in the waning days of the 2016 campaign.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she received money in exchange for keeping silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump in 2006.
The former president’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen has said he coordinated with Trump on the payments to Daniels and to a second woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also said she had a sexual relationship with him.
Trump has denied having affairs with either woman and initially disputed knowing anything about the payments. He later acknowledged reimbursing Cohen for what he called a “simple private transaction.”
Cohen pleaded guilty to a campaign-finance violation in 2018 and served more than a year in prison. Federal prosecutors said he acted at Trump’s direction.
Additional reporting by Tim Reid, Doina Chiacu and Katherine Jackson; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Costas Pitas; Editing by Scott Malone, Mark Heinrich, Frank Jack Daniel, Chizu Nomiyama and Daniel Wallis