The Manhattan district attorney's office is jump-starting its criminal investigation into former President Donald Trump after earlier reports suggested the probe had fizzled out, The New York Times reports.
Prosecutors under new District Attorney Alvin Bragg have revived a "zombie theory" to focus on the $130,000 hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels, who alleged she had an affair with Trump during the 2016 campaign, according to the report.
The payment, which former Trump fixer Michael Cohen said he made on Trump's behalf, was the original focus of the investigation under former DA Cy Vance before the probe expanded to focus on Trump's larger business practices. But Bragg and some of his deputies have recently indicated that they are "newly optimistic about building a case" against Trump around the payment, according to the Times.
The development marks the first sign of progress in the probe since Bragg took over earlier this year and balked at indicting Trump in relation to his business practices. Under Vance, the office had rejected the idea of focusing only on the hush money payments because it "would hinge on a largely untested and therefore risky legal theory," according to the report.
But this time prosecutors are considering building their case by pressuring longtime Trump Organization financial chief Allen Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges in a separate probe and testified against Trump's company last week.
Weisselberg has not flipped on Trump himself but prosecutors are now considering a new round of charges in an effort to secure his cooperation against the former president, according to the report. The charges would be related to insurance fraud and unrelated to the hush money payment itself, sources told the outlet.
Weisselberg, who has direct knowledge of the hush money payment, has repeatedly refused to turn on Trump and revealed during his testimony last week that he remains on the Trump payroll.
The development comes as new special counsel Jack Smith takes over the Justice Department's investigations into Trump's role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and national security documents found at Mar-a-Lago. Attorney General Merrick Garland's appointment of Smith may cause "time pressure" for Bragg's investigation but prosecutors involved with the probe are still in the midst of the tax fraud trial against Trump's companies and are unlikely to present evidence related to the hush money payment to a grand jury until next year, according to the report.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and said he never had an affair with Daniels.
"I really don't believe that they're going back and conducting these investigations, and if there's any truth to it, it would show poor judgment," Michael van der Veen, an attorney for Trump's company, told the Times. "The millions of taxpayer dollars they've spent on countless investigations, it's a big waste of time and money."
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
The hush money payment kicked off the Manhattan probe after Cohen pleaded guilty in a federal case to making a payment that amounted to an illegal campaign contribution on behalf of Trump. Manhattan prosecutors began investigating whether the payments may have violated state law and whether the company falsely listed the reimbursement to Cohen as a legal expense. Vance sought to obtain Trump's tax returns, which set off a yearslong court battle, and by the time he obtained them in 2021 he had "developed concerns" about pursuing the case because prosecutors would need to show that Trump falsified the hush money records to help commit or conceal a crime, according to the report. Prosecutors looked at whether the federal campaign finance violation Cohen pleaded to could constitute the prerequisite secondary crime but outside legal experts concluded the theory was too risky to pursue because it was a federal crime and not a state one.
Prosecutors began looking at Trump's greater business practices after Cohen testified that the company inflated its assets while seeking favorable loan terms and deflated their value when trying to reduce its tax bill. The allegations have prompted a $250 million civil fraud lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James that seeks to bar Trump and his three eldest children from doing business in the state.
Bragg, meanwhile, stopped presenting evidence in the case to a grand jury in February, prompting two prosecutors working on the case to resign in protest. The DA's office continued its investigation into Weisselberg and unreported fringe benefits he received from Trump's business, securing a guilty plea and his cooperation against the Trump companies. Prosecutors are now looking at whether they can bring new insurance fraud charges after James' probe accused Weisselberg of lying to an insurance underwriter when he claimed the value of the Trump Organization's real estate assets had been assessed by an independent assessor when they had not, according to the report. The DA's office has subpoenaed the insurer, Zurich North America, and questioned the appraiser.
the Trump Organization probe