Trump screams into void as Manhattan DA probe goes quiet

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP Photo

NEW YORK – The five-alarm headlines dominating conservative media this week predicted Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s investigation into Donald Trump was on the brink of collapse after the grand jury took two days off from hearing evidence.

“Hannity: Alvin Bragg’s case against Trump crumbles,” blared a report from Fox News. “Is Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg getting cold feet?” asked Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on his podcast, Verdict. “Why Alvin Bragg’s case against Trump is falling apart,” an opinion piece in the New York Post sought to explain.

The grand jury’s period of quietude this week drew outsized attention after a procession of witnesses and other activity had suggested an imminent indictment of the former president for his alleged role in a 2016 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.

But four legal experts who worked in the DA’s office prior to Bragg's tenure said such pauses didn’t necessarily signal a troubling turn for the investigation. They’re more likely the result of prosecutors weighing whether to present a rebuttal witness to counter claims the grand jury heard earlier in the week from a Trump ally or an effort to minimize the time between an indictment and the former president’s surrender.


The inaction, though, combined with Bragg’s silence — legally mandated due to grand jury secrecy laws — have allowed Trump to fill the void, attacking the probe as politically motivated, spurring his supporters to protest and prophesying “potential death and destruction” if he were to be indicted.

“What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former president of the United States, who got more votes than any sitting president in history, and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a crime,” Trump wrote on his social media site early Friday, “when it is known by all that NO crime has been committed, & also that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our country?”

Trump’s reliance on fiery rhetoric, designed to whip up his supporters, is one reason Bragg might want to delay an indictment in order to minimize the time period between the grand jury vote and when Trump could turn himself in, said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, who was the chief assistant district attorney under Bragg’s predecessor, Cy Vance.

“If I were the D.A., I wouldn't want too much time between surrender and indictment for security reasons,” she said in an interview. “I would say, let’s wait to ask the grand jury to indict until we know we have a surrender date.”

Agnifilo added that prosecutors were also likely deciding whether to call a witness to rebut information provided earlier this week by defense witness Robert Costello, who testified Monday. Costello, who was once a legal adviser to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, the prosecution’s central witness in its investigation, sought to discredit Cohen.

“If they want to go after Donald Trump and they have solid evidence, so be it. But Michael Cohen is far from solid evidence,” Costello said at a press conference after testifying before the panel. He also accused the DA’s office of cherry-picking evidence by asking him about only six out of 321 emails between his firm and Cohen. For his part, Cohen disputed Costello’s claims.

Former Manhattan assistant district attorney Jeremy Saland, who worked under Bragg’s two predecessors, said prosecutors could be contemplating additional evidence, perhaps from Costello, or simply putting together the indictment itself. Saland said he would “absolutely not” read anything into the fact that the grand jury adjourned Wednesday and heard evidence about an unrelated case Thursday. The grand jury typically meets Mondays, Wednesday and Thursdays.

Additional legal experts familiar with the office’s operations said prosecutors could be processing other material, such as a February 2018 letter published by the Daily Mail this week from a former Cohen attorney to the Federal Election Commission saying that Cohen used his personal funds to pay the porn star, Stormy Daniels, and wasn’t reimbursed for the payment. Those claims contrast with what Cohen subsequently pleaded guilty to in federal court.

While that type of evidence wouldn’t necessarily torpedo Bragg’s case, legal experts said, it could be something prosecutors need to evaluate.

Meanwhile, the frenzy surrounding the case left law enforcement, court officials, media and lawyers in a holding pattern, watching for any clues from Bragg’s office about the probe’s direction and leaving some frustrated with the amount of time and resources being put into a years-long investigation that still appeared incomplete.

Still, Joan Vollero, who handled communications for the Manhattan D.A. under Vance, said the lengthy nature of the investigation, combined with this week’s pause in the grand jury hearing evidence in the case, could help insulate the prosecutors’ office from accusations that it is rushing to judgment.

“No one can accuse D.A. Bragg of being hasty in this matter,” she said.

On the other hand, Vollero added, “Delay always benefits the defendant because evidence weakens with the passage of time and witnesses' memories fade, and that’s what benefits Donald Trump.”