On March 30, 2023, a grand jury in Manhattan indicted former President Donald Trump. On April 4, Trump was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records. He pled not guilty to each.
The indictment alleges that Trump falsified business records in his supposed reimbursements to lawyer Michael Cohen after Cohen made a “hush money” payment to adult actress Stephanie A. Gregory Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels. Cohen served about a year in prison in 2019-2020 after having pled guilty to violating federal campaign finance law with a $130,000 payment to Daniels. The indictment claims that the Trump Organization recorded its reimbursements to Cohen as legal expenses..
Daniels says that she had an affair with Trump. The hush money payment was made in 2016, just before the presidential election, and Cohen claims that Trump directed him to manage the payment to Daniels. Cohen and Daniels were witnesses in the grand jury hearing at which Trump was indicted. The credibility of Cohen’s testimony in particular has been called into question because of his criminal past.
Members of the Haverford community have also expressed concern over the witnesses.
“The credibility of the sources is important, but I do not believe that the [District Attorney Alvin Bragg] would have brought this case forward if it was just a case of he-said-she-said from witnesses of dubious origin,” Sixth Former Isaish Shuchman said. “And I don’t think most people who know a decent amount about the legal system in our country would jump to that conclusion of this being a weak case either.”
From the foundations of the indictment to the validity of the case itself, opinions vary widely. The former president is polarizing, underscored by the nation’s split reaction to his charge. Reactions have also been mixed in the school community. However, students from both sides of the political spectrum have indicated a belief that the indictment was justified, despite potential political motivations or “convenient timing.”
“I do believe that the indictment was absolutely justified; the evidence suggests that he committed a crime, so he should be indicted,” Fifth Former Reilly Pryma said.
“It seems to me that there is sufficient reason to indict President Trump, but the timing doesn’t seem right,” Fourth Former Harrison Brown said. “To me, I do not understand why this information is just coming out now as the incidents occurred about seven years ago.”
Justified or not, the indictment is simply a formal accusation of crime—not a conviction or sentencing. Trump maintains his innocence and will fight the charges in court over the coming months.
In addition to his plea of “not guilty” to each of the 34 charges, Trump has made numerous statements both denying the charges and delegitimizing the case. Some of his comments on his social media platform, Truth Social, include, “ALVIN BRAGG SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE FOR THE CRIME OF ‘INTERFERENCE IN A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION’” and “THE WITCH HUNT NEVER ENDS.” Trump has frequently referred to investigations into him as “witch hunts,” suggesting that they are partisan efforts to discredit him or hurt his public image.
“Being President is an important responsibility, and yeah, that might mean that people look a little closer at the things you have done and they might hold you to a higher standard,” Schuchman said. “Though in a criminal case, it’s not even a higher standard, just the same one that you or I might be held to. That’s a good thing.”
Whether or not the indictment is legitimate remains a subject of heated debate. A CNN poll found that 60% of Americans support the indictment, but while 94% of Democrats are in favor, 79% of Republicans oppose it. A Quinnipiac poll found that 93% of Republicans and 70% of Independents believe that the indictment was political, while 66% of Democrats said that it was motivated by the law.
“I doubt that it is apolitical and that the D.A. was influenced by anti-Trump sentiment in pursuing it as vigorously as he is,” Pryma said. “Though, I still believe [Trump] would’ve gotten into some legal trouble eventually, regardless of his political career.”
As New York prosecutors begin their case in court, similar considerations of political motivations will unravel. Selecting a jury of peers to decide Trump’s case will prove difficult.
“I think it will be extremely difficult to hold a fair trial, considering how politically polar our country has become,” Brown said.
Fourth Former Tommy Saul believes that finding an unbiased jury will not be “entirely possible.”
“At some point, [jurors’] subconscious bias[es] takes over. But, I believe most try to remain in an unbiased standpoint,” Saul said.
Pryma took a more optimistic view but still noted the challenge.
“I believe that it is possible to find an unbiased jury; there are a decent number of apolitical people out there. However, in this age of information being spread everywhere and that information becoming more and more polarized, it would be incredibly difficult to find a fully unbiased jury, especially for a figure like Trump,” Pryma said. “It’s hard to think of an achievable solution. An equal number of left- and right-leaning people would just lead to a hung jury, and finding a completely unbiased jury is difficult. But, for one of the nation’s most important trials, I think it’s possible.”
As news cycles focused on the indictment, Trump’s popularity among Republicans actually grew. He leads by an even larger margin in Republican primary polls in mid-April than he did in mid-March. Post-indictment, Reuters reported a 4% increase in self-described Republicans who want Trump to claim their party’s nomination, while his nearest rival, Florida Governor Ron Desantis, lost over 10% of supporters in the same time period. Similarly, FiveThirtyEight reported that Trump’s lead over Desantis grew from ~8% to 26% in a Yahoo News/YouGov poll.
Although increased support after a criminal indictment may seem odd, it is demonstrative of the polarized state of the United States and of Trump’s powerful populism. The conviction doesn’t seem to have changed many opinions about Trump. Rather, it has served as a rallying point for Trump supporters and just another reason for those who dislike the former president to oppose him. The polarized viewpoints showcased by both polls underscore changes in American sensibilities.
“We’ve reached a point in American political discourse where a certain side tends to believe ‘If I didn’t win, it was rigged,’” Shuchman said. “When you have large media corporations and the same populist elected officials on that side amplifying this voice, and those voices are in an echo chamber, it’s understandable how a lot of people believe that.” Like the rest of America, the student body is split over Trump. An October 2020 Index poll of 128 upper school respondents showed that 48% of students supported Trump and 41% supported now-President Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Even if a potential Trump conviction does not seem to influence the community much, his situation—frequently discussed in the media—will remain intertwined with the student body’s political engagement.