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Trump verdict vindicates N.Y. prosecutor who quietly pursued a risky path

NEW YORK — Alvin Bragg watched his place in the history books take shape from the second row of the courtroom Thursday, as a jury foreman rose from his seat and confidently announced each of 34 findings of guilt against Donald Trump.

Bragg (D), the elected Manhattan district attorney, had weathered a tide of criticism for bringing charges against the former president for allegedly falsifying business records related to a hush money payment ahead of the 2016 election.

Some thought the case was weak. Others — namely the defendant and his allies — continue to insist without offering evidence that it was a politically motivated attack on Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in this year’s presidential election.

Those who know Bragg say he approached the prosecution the way he approaches most cases: quietly and businesslike. He was undeterred by the constant political attacks, they say, and committed to pursuing a novel legal theory that he believed made sense.

“Our job is to follow the facts and the law without fear or favor. And that’s exactly what we did here,” Bragg said at a news conference after the verdict.

Some elected officials might have taken the opportunity to declare vindication. Bragg gave credit to his trial team, the jury, police and the court system that managed the unprecedented challenge of hosting the first-of-its kind trial, expressing “gratitude to work alongside phenomenal public servants.”

Bragg, who declined to speak for this article, also nodded to the legacy of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, calling the Trump prosecution a part of a storied tradition of taking on powerful officials and others accused of betraying the public’s trust.

The indictment Bragg filed last spring marked the first time a former U.S. president had faced criminal charges. It was the first of four criminal indictments that would plague Trump as he again sought his party’s nomination. The other cases, in D.C., Florida and Georgia, have been stalled by pretrial motions and appeals, and will not go to trial anytime soon.

Trump was convicted in New York of engaging in a scheme to conceal the true nature of a $130,000 payoff to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump years earlier. The jury found that Trump falsely classified his reimbursement to his then-attorney, Michael Cohen, to protect his chances at winning.

Jim Walden, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said Bragg “handled this case beautifully despite the intense public scrutiny over every move” — staying restrained and focusing on the jury, rather than himself, when it was over.

Like other law enforcement figures who have taken on Trump, Bragg, who is the first Black district attorney in Manhattan, has been inundated with race-based hate messages and threats of violence. Last year, investigators fielded almost 600 threats against Bragg, his family or his staff.

New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), who successfully sued Trump and his namesake company for engaging in a decade of fraud, has also been a target of Trump and his supporters, with racist and sexist rants.

Instead of responding to the incessant attacks, Bragg stayed quiet and did his job, keeping his responses limited to what his team presented in court.

“I don’t think it moved him one bit from what he thought was the right thing to do,” said former prosecutor Xavier Donaldson, who has known Bragg since the district attorney’s law career began.

A native of Harlem and a graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, Bragg is seen in New York’s legal community as a stalwart of decency and professionalism in his work. Donaldson and others who know him from his stints as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and in the New York Attorney General’s office say they were not surprised by his poise under pressure.

Bragg “stayed the course and he was very quiet about it … He was about the business of prosecuting the case that he thought should be prosecuted,” said Donaldson, now a defense attorney in private practice. “You don’t want that kind of person to be your adversary because they are committed to doing the right thing for the right reason.”

Trump-aligned Republicans such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) have tried to drag Bragg into blatant political sideshows. This month, Jordan is seeking Bragg’s testimony at a congressional “Hearing on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.” Last year, Bragg sued Jordan, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to stop his efforts to use his position to meddle in the case.

In what was widely seen as a partisan stunt, Jordan convened a committee hearing on public safety in New York shortly after Bragg indicted Trump, an effort to paint the district attorney as an inadequate crime-fighter whose policies were amplifying a sense of dangerousness in the city.

Since beginning his four-year term in 2022, Bragg has faced an onslaught of disapproval from police unions and residents who say his crime-fighting policies are too lenient.

Bragg’s responses to those complaints have been measured, and he has highlighted a number of successful investigations by his office, including initiatives that he says have significantly cut crime in some neighborhoods by addressing peddlers of untraceable weapons known as “ghost guns” and using community programs to intervene in the lives of at-risk kids.

In choosing to bring the hush money case against Trump, Bragg was breaking with his former colleagues at the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, who investigated the matter and charged Cohen, but declined to charge Trump.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating campaign finance law on the basis that the hush money benefited Trump’s campaign and exceeded donation limits. He served prison time for that charge and for tax evasion and lying to Congress.

Federal prosecutors could not have charged Trump in 2018 because of Justice Department prohibitions on charging a sitting president. Once Trump was out of office, they concluded a case against him was too risky because it would rely heavily on the word of Cohen, by then a disbarred attorney and felon, people familiar with the matter have told The Washington Post.

Bragg’s team told jurors that Cohen’s testimony was supported by a mountain of evidence, including text messages, bank records, meeting notes and nine reimbursement checks Trump signed personally while in office that claimed the repayments to Cohen were actually routine legal fees.

During the trial, prosecutors walked jurors through the a complicated theory of the case that required them to agree that Trump falsified the records in an effort to affect the 2016 election, and that it was reasonable to conclude that he violated one of three state laws while doing so.

In less than two full days of deliberations after weeks of testimony, the jury found Bragg’s instincts were spot on.

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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