On Deadline, Decoding the Trump Indictment

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Just after 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, a news release from the Manhattan district attorney’s office landed in the inbox of Michael Rothfeld, an investigative reporter on the Metro desk of The New York Times: The indictment of Donald J. Trump had been unsealed. It was go time.

Over the next several hours, Mr. Rothfeld combed through the 16-page indictment charging Mr. Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree, a low-level felony in New York State. The charges center on a hush-money deal with the porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Mr. Trump pleaded not guilty.) Mr. Rothfeld also scrutinized a 13-page “statement of facts” in which the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, outlined a larger scheme that he said Mr. Trump and others orchestrated during the 2016 campaign to avoid negative press.

Mr. Rothfeld, who was part of the team at The Wall Street Journal that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for reporting on hush-money deals made on behalf of Mr. Trump, got to work annotating each document for an interactive Times piece, which allowed readers to see the files alongside expert context. The format was built by Charlie Smart, an editor on the Graphics desk; he started brainstorming for it in mid-March. “We weren’t sure when it would come,” Mr. Smart said of the indictment. “But we wanted to be ready.”

As Mr. Rothfeld completed each annotation, Mr. Smart and Dagny Salas, a deputy Metro editor, reviewed it and added it to the article. In addition to the online display, the annotated document appeared in some print issues on Wednesday.

In an interview, Mr. Rothfeld shared how he approached the annotation process and why it was beneficial for readers to see the actual documents.

After receiving the documents, what was your first step?

I skimmed the indictment first. It had a lot of echoes, so I didn’t read every word. All 34 counts were identical, but there were some differences in the types of records Trump was accused of falsifying.

Once I had absorbed how the document was structured and what was repeated, I chose one example to annotate and pointed out how the context we were providing also applied to the other charges.

Charlie had created a Google Doc, and that’s where I inputted my copy: the page number of the indictment, the section I wanted to highlight and the text of my annotation. The text was edited in the Google Doc before Charlie put it into the actual document.

How long did it take you to get the first version of the article published?

Not long after getting the documents, we posted them — without any annotations — just to get them up so people could see them. After that, I kept adding annotations. I’ve done a lot of reporting on legal issues and on the Trump hush-money payments, so I already had that knowledge base.

Were you able to prewrite any annotations?

We couldn’t prewrite anything without knowing what was in the indictment.

How did you balance explaining general legal terminology with providing context on details specific to this indictment?

I wanted to include some basic things like how this indictment came about, the fact it was voted on by a grand jury made up of regular New Yorkers who had been sitting for months. Then I highlighted the first instance of the particular crime Trump was charged with 34 times and explained that it’s more than a misdemeanor but the lowest felony you can have. I didn’t want to use technical jargon. I wanted people to understand the context and importance in the clearest possible terms.

What is the benefit of readers’ being able to see the actual documents?

It helps people trust what they’re looking at when they’re reading the actual document versus if they’re just relying on what I was choosing to highlight if I were writing a traditional article. It gives them a better window into the process of what’s happening in the case, with a little expertise to guide them through what they’re looking at.

Were you surprised by anything?

I was surprised that the second document, the statement of facts, contained a lot of color and narrative. That one was more fun to annotate because I could try to signpost the story being told by the district attorney of how hush money was paid by Trump throughout the 2016 election to various unnamed characters. I could go through the document and say, “OK, this begins the story of Stormy Daniels, who’s here referred to as Woman 2,” so you could follow along as you were reading the document. I felt like a narrator.

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