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Trump's interactions with Stormy Daniels are in the spotlight again

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump has been invited to speak to a Manhattan grand jury this week. The move is being seen as a sign that Trump could soon face criminal charges related to allegations that he paid hush money to Stephanie Clifford, the adult film star also known as Stormy Daniels. Such an action, if it occurs, would be extraordinary. Trump would become the first former president in U.S. history to be indicted.

Now, Trump has faced so many legal issues for so long, involving everything from allegations of sexual misconduct to fraud, that we thought this would be a good time to take a look at this specific matter, to ask what we know, what we can expect and why it matters. For this, we called Harry Litman. He is a former federal prosecutor and senior legal affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He's also the host of the "Talking Feds" podcast, where he's been following many of Trump's legal battles. And he's with us once again. Harry Litman, thanks so much for joining us.

HARRY LITMAN: Thanks for having me, Michel. Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: So before we jump into thinking about what's ahead for this case, would you just, as briefly as you can, remind us of this specific issue in the - what I think most people think of as the Stormy Daniels case and why it matters?

LITMAN: So Stormy Daniels emerges on the eve of the election looking for payment, otherwise saying she will reveal that she and the then-presidential candidate had an affair. And Trump played ball with her and arranged for a payment but did it in a bit of a deceptive way. And it's that deception, having to do with the misreporting of the payment to her as actual legal fees to Michael Cohen, that is the crime under New York law. The actual payment of hush money to a mistress, as it turns out, is not a crime. So the charge is you misreported your income here. You know, they get you on the papers, as always.

MARTIN: Is there some broader significance to this? I mean, is this a tax matter that could attend to any private citizen? Or is this irrelevant factor because this was a candidate and - that was making payments in order to circumvent laws around disclosure of political contributions and things of that sort?

LITMAN: Yeah, another great question because it is both. So the simple misreporting - it doesn't matter that you're a candidate, but that's just a misdemeanor. However, if it's done in the service of another crime, then it becomes a felony. And we don't know. We have to see the indictment. But it looks as if the other crime that the DA is pursuing is basically a campaign finance violations.

MARTIN: Is it true that inviting a potential defendant to testify is often a prelude to criminal charges? Can you help us understand that?

LITMAN: Yes. There are two signs this week. One is they've "invited" him, quote-unquote, to come on in and testify. And tomorrow, Monday, Michael Cohen, who's the star witness, is testifying. And that's somebody you withhold till the very end, A, to give him maximum persuasive value, but, B, and more importantly, to make sure there's nothing he says that is going to be inconsistent with the testimony that came before. I think most people with experience in the New York criminal justice system would say this isn't a wink and a nod or a strong indication. This is happening.

MARTIN: Do you think that what happens in this case will influence all these other investigations into President Trump's actions? As we said, that there's just - there are a myriad of cases. I mean, matters involving whether he sexually assaulted a woman who's a, you know, fairly well-known, you know, columnist. There's this matter about whether he manipulated the valuations of his properties, you know, for different contexts. So there's just an array of other matters. Does what happens here affect any of those in any way?

LITMAN: I think any of those in any way, yes. I think it will probably light a fire under the Fulton County DA, who we'd been assuming would be first. Certainly, if he's convicted, that is admissible evidence in the E. Jean Carroll case that you're talking about. But the other prosecutions, and the most important one, the federal one, I think the prosecutors will just keep their heads down and not be impacted by it. And, you know, this is seismic. It's the first time in the history of the republic. But I think if we flash forward three, four months, there'll be two, three maybe more criminal charges pending against the former president. And at that point, who happened to go first, I think, will recede in importance in front of a whole morass of different legal, criminal and civil battles.

MARTIN: That is Harry Litman. He's a former deputy assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice. He currently hosts the "Talking Feds" podcast. Harry Litman, thanks so much for joining us.

LITMAN: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.