34 counts for 45. And announced by Harlem’s own. 

Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg took center stage at a Lower Manhattan press conference to delineate the first-ever criminal charges against an American president this past Tuesday, April 4.

“Earlier this afternoon, Donald Trump was arraigned on a New York Supreme Court indictment returned by a Manhattan grand jury on 34-felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree,” Bragg said. “Under New York State law, it is a felony to falsify business records with intent to fraud [and] conceal other [crimes]. That is exactly what this case is about: 34 false statements made to cover up other crimes. 

“These are felony crimes in New York State no matter who you are. We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct.”

And speaking of serious criminal conduct, threats against Bragg and his family were reportedly on the rise over the past few weeks leading up to the indictment and subsequent arraignment. Most notably, he reportedly received a letter threatening his life and containing a white powdery substance. 

Then there’s Trump’s own behavior on his Truth Social platform. The former president shared an image of himself holding a baseball bat positioned next to a photo of the Manhattan D.A. The post is now gone. Trump also recently penned a rambling paragraph on Truth Social indicating “potential death and destruction” stemming from his charges. He’s currently standing by this one—it was still up at the time of this article’s filing. 

Last week, Rep. Adriano Espaillat organized a rally in Bragg’s native Central Harlem to support him and denounce the threats. 

“We do not know what will happen with investigations in other jurisdictions, but we do know that New York City stands in solidarity with Alvin Bragg, a son of Harlem, and we will not be intimidated by Republican tactics, threats, [or] racist and hate-based rhetoric,” said Espaillat. 

During the rally, Upper East Side councilwoman Julie Menin—a former attorney—continued her long-time legal criticism of Trump. 

“Inciting violence against our DA is more than dangerous,” she said. “It is in fact a crime—in fact, multiple crimes: harassment in the first degree, menacing in the second degree, and stalking in the third degree.” 

Also on Tuesday, Democratic House Leader Hakeem Jeffries extended his support to Bragg, in addition to denouncing Trump’s comments in a quote provided by his office from an interview with WNYC: “Well, the rhetoric that has been hurled against Alvin Bragg is dangerous, offensive, and inconsistent with any notion of decency that should exist here in this country. We need more unity, more togetherness, and less and less divisiveness, and it’s my hope that cooler heads will prevail as we move forward if we can just simply allow the process to play itself out.”

But are Trump’s posts protected by the First Amendment? Even Norman Siegel, one of the country’s foremost proponents of free speech and civil liberties, is conflicted.

“Even people like Donald Trump, when they say things that are not only unpleasant, but also hurtful [and] painful, there is First Amendment protection for everyone,” said Siegel. “It doesn’t mean we should be silent and say he can continue to do it. There have been people in cases [who] use the First Amendment freedom of speech as a defense for any legal claim that they’re using their speech in a negative way.”

He added that judgment of whether Trump’s posts are protected is fact-intensive, and often relies on the line between protected rhetorical speech and direct threats. Siegel praised the judge’s decision not to issue a gag order for the ex-president to discuss the case and instead warn him to “refrain from making comments or engaging in conduct that has the potential to incite violence, create civil unrest, or jeopardize the safety or well-being of any individuals.” He said any decision to silence Trump should be made on Dec. 4, the next in-person hearing in the case. 

NYU School of Law Prof. Erin Murphy said Trump’s actions are consistent with his history of delegitimizing Black political authority and thinks there are potentially serious teeth to the ex-president’s words.

“We should as New Yorkers, whatever our political persuasion is, experience a threat to [Bragg] as a threat to our city,” she said. “We have seen these kinds of acts of violence…we should care a great deal about letting the system in the process work out in its own way unimpeded [and] unaffected by the kind of threats that nobody else is allowed to get away with.”

Murphy cited last month’s arrest of a Yonkers man for making threats against the city’s mayor and police as a recent example of law enforcement intervening in incitement of violence. Murphy also said the ex-president’s claims that Bragg was backed by George Soros are rooted in anti-semitism, conjuring images of “Jewish power and cabals.” Anti-semitic attacks are rising in New York City, according to NYPD data. 

While Trump’s baseball bat picture coincides with Major League Baseball’s opening day, it’s hard to imagine the intention is not threatening, given the context. Still, he’s arguing he didn’t know the bat would be next to a photo of Bragg and that he was celebrating the slugger’s “American-made” manufacturers. Fordham School of Law Prof. Cheryl Bader said Trump knows exactly where to draw the line with his words, despite not being particularly articulate.

“He wants to let his followers know exactly what he wants them to do but be able to later on, claims no responsibility for the actions of others,” she said. “He might say, ‘Well, this is the perfect media post,’ but certainly, I think that it crosses the line.”

Beyond the dog-and-pony show, Bader said the case can help illustrate the criminal administrative process in New York City and how it affects those who can’t afford the same high-powered lawyers as someone like Trump. 

Despite the intimidation against Bragg, the occasion of an indictment is not lost among prominent Black New Yorkers. 

Basil Smikle, PhD, director of the Public Policy Program at Hunter College, called it poetic after former New York gubernatorial candidate and Trump supporter Lee Zeldin regularly attacked Bragg on his campaign.

“It is Alvin Bragg [who] made it so that Trump would have to get his behind on a plane and [head] back to New York to face these charges,” said Smikle. “The threats are very important and real, and given what happened on Jan. 6, we need to take them seriously, and I’m sure he does. But it’s also a larger threat to our democracy that Trump’s launched and wants to position himself as being above the law, which clearly is not the case.”

Rev. Al Sharpton also found the situation poetic in a National Action Network (NAN) statement last week over the news of an arraignment. 

“It’s not lost on those of us who were there in 1989 that Donald Trump will likely walk into the same courthouse where the Exonerated 5 were falsely convicted for a crime they did not commit,” he said. “Let’s not forget that it was Donald Trump who took out full-page ads calling for these five Black and brown young men to get the death penalty. This is the same man who’s now calling for violence when he has to go through the criminal justice system. 

“The same man will have to stand up in a courtroom and see firsthand what the criminal justice system is like. All I can say is, what goes around comes around.”

Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated 5, initially provided a one-word comment on the news of Trump’s indictment: “Karma.” After Tuesday’s arraignment, he released a second statement.

“Even though 34 years ago, you effectively called for my death and the death of four other innocent children, I wish you no harm,” Salaam said.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent article, painting a picture of the personalities and events surrounding the arraignment of private citizen Donald Trump. We can not lose sight of the gravity of this situation and the destructive, evil behavior of this little man. There is still much left to be done as the presidency hangs in the balance and as the lives of Mr. Bragg and the judge, Mr. Merchand, and their families remain under serious threat by Trump’s allies. America and its historical evil now sits at the door of justice, which must prevail if it is to salvage what is left of its soul. KARMA!

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