NEW YORK – When Alvin Bragg became Manhattan's first Black district attorney last year, one of his first big decisions was to tap the brakes on an investigation that had been speeding toward a likely criminal case against former President Donald Trump.
The move won him few friends. Exasperated liberals dreaming of Trump in handcuffs threw up their hands. Conservatives gloated that the Democrat's hesitation to bring a charge was proof Trump had been investigated for political reasons.
A year later, Bragg is shaking up that first impression.
Fresh from winning a conviction against Trump's family company for tax fraud, Bragg convened a new grand jury last week in a reinvigorated investigation that could lead to the first ever criminal charges against a former U.S. president.
The probe, lately focused on hush money payments made to two women in 2016, is one of several legal challenges Trump faces as he seeks a return to the White House. It is putting Bragg back in the spotlight after a grueling first year in office.
“We’re going to follow the facts and continue to do our job,” Bragg said, speaking broadly about the investigation in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Asked if charging Trump was a real possibility, or if the former president could rest easy, Bragg replied: “I’m not going to tell anyone how to rest.”
Bragg came into office 13 months ago amid what he calls a “perfect storm” of rising crime and political pressure. A Harvard-educated former federal prosecutor, chief deputy state attorney general and civil rights lawyer, he came equipped with legal and management credentials, but not much experience navigating New York City politics.
He campaigned as a progressive reformer, but one with a strong record as a prosecutor, and won an eight-way party primary before soaring to victory with 83% of the vote in deep-blue Manhattan.
Yet he got off to a rocky start. Shortly after taking office, he wrote a “Day One” memo for his staff that outlined his philosophy on prosecuting — or not prosecuting — certain crimes. Among other things, it said the district attorney would no longer prosecute some low-level misdemeanor crimes, including subway fare evasion and marijuana possession.
Republicans, and some centrist Democrats, pounced.
Bragg, they said, was soft on crime. New York’s police commissioner said Bragg’s intention not to prosecute some people accused of resisting arrest would invite violence against police officers.
U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican running for governor, campaigned partly on a promise to remove the independently elected Bragg from office. He also featured Bragg in a campaign ad, even though Bragg wasn’t even on the ballot.
The vitriol became so rancid — and sometimes racist — Bragg said his friends worried for his safety.
But Bragg, an old-school lawyer, was hesitant to push back publicly, something he now regrets.
“I’ve learned that the work doesn’t always speak for itself,” said Bragg, who's been appearing more on TV and giving interviews to outlets as varied as Teen Vogue and Manhattan's West Side Rag.
He likened Zeldin's TV attack ad to an infamous “Willie Horton” commercial that aired in the 1980s in support of George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign. That ad featured a Black prison inmate who committed violent crimes while on a weekend leave as part of a program authorized by Bush’s Democratic rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
“If someone wants to have substantive discussion, we can have that,” Bragg told the AP. “But if someone wants to put a Black face in an ad and have Willie Horton-type fears raised, we don’t have time for that.”
While some types of crime increased in Manhattan during Bragg’s first year in office, the number of homicides and shootings actually dropped.
Inside the district attorney's office, Bragg faced dissent over the direction of the Trump investigation — grievances that are being aired anew in a book by a former prosecutor.
In 2021, Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., had authorized top deputies to seek an indictment on charges that Trump had exaggerated the worth of his assets in financial statements he gave to lenders. A grand jury had been collecting evidence. Vance retired before the case was finished, leaving the decision about whether to go forward to Bragg.
Bragg decided not to proceed immediately, citing concerns about the strength of the case.
The delay prompted two prosecutors leading the investigation to resign.
One of them, Mark Pomerantz, has written about his disagreement with Bragg in a new book, “People vs. Donald Trump: An Inside Account." In it, Pomerantz outlines his case for charging Trump and laments Bragg’s decision not to pursue an indictment.
Bragg countered in a statement that, in his assessment, “Pomerantz’s plane wasn’t ready for takeoff.”
Bragg also took issue with Pomerantz’s criticism of his prosecution team. “It is appalling that he insulted the skill and professionalism of our prosecutors," he said at an event this week. "We have the most outstanding lawyers in the country working every day in the Manhattan DA's office to keep our city safe from the streets to the suites.”
Lately, those lawyers have again been turning up the heat on Trump.
On Dec. 6 they won a conviction against the Trump Organization for helping the company’s former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, and other executives avoid paying personal income taxes. The company got a $1.6 million fine. Weisselberg pleaded guilty and got jail time. He qualifies for release in April.
And a new grand jury is hearing evidence related to payments made in 2016 to two women who alleged they had sexual encounters with Trump.
Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has already served prison time in connection with those payments after pleading guilty to campaign finance crimes. He has said the Trump Organization reimbursed him for one of the payouts and rewarded him with extra pay disguised as reimbursement for legal services.
Bragg declined to discuss the investigation in detail, but said prosecutors had paused certain aspects of the probe until the Trump Organization trial was finished. The verdict was a green light to get back to work.
“The trial is sort of a strong demarcation line for us,” Bragg said.
With that, the Manhattan investigation is suddenly back on the list of potential legal perils for Trump.
In Fulton County, Georgia, the district attorney is investigating Trump’s alleged interference in that state during the 2020 election. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Trump's storage of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago club and residence in Florida and the former president's role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump has lashed out at Bragg and Pomerantz on social media, calling the district attorney's investigation “fake,” “weak,” and “fatally flawed.”
“THE BIGGEST PROBLEM THEY HAD WITH THE “CASE” IS THAT I DID NOTHING WRONG!” he said in one recent post.
But now, a year later, Bragg and his team might have other thoughts.
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