After Trump Trial Win, Manhattan District Attorney Prepares for Year Two
There are two maps on the north wall of the Manhattan district attorney’s private office. The first is the borough broken down by police precinct. The other is a famous magazine cover with a reimagined view of the world that consists mostly of New York City.
These are the two perspectives that the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, has on his mind at the beginning of his second year in office: the local Manhattan of neighborhoods, each with its own crime trends and social issues, and the global city where a criminal investigation into a former U.S. president grinds on.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon after the Christmas holiday, Mr. Bragg, 49, sat for an interview, reflecting on his first year as he gears up for the second. He begins 2023 with momentum, having won a conviction of Donald J. Trump’s company in December and presiding over a decline in murders and shootings. The furious criticism that he was too timid to confront Mr. Trump and too liberal to make the city safe has eased, to an extent. But Mr. Bragg remains a lightning rod, particularly with the persistence of a pandemic-era rise in crime.
“The Manhattan spotlight is bright,” he said, adding, “I came in as a career lawyer, as someone who is trained to think the work speaks for itself.”
He has learned, he said, that part of the job is ensuring that his prosecutors’ work is “properly contextualized and understood,” and that he is always responsible for explaining “what specifically is being done to advance public safety and how.”
“And if you don’t, other people will try to define that work for you,” he added.
Mr. Bragg, a former federal prosecutor and Manhattan’s first Black district attorney, was pilloried for a policy memo he released in his first week in office that set out a lenient approach to some crimes. The following month, he was further criticized when he chose not to proceed with a grand jury presentation against Mr. Trump that was expected to lead to an indictment.
The Republican candidate for governor of New York, Lee Zeldin, made Mr. Bragg his scapegoat in an attempt to capitalize on voters’ concerns about the increase in crime: Mr. Zeldin vowed to remove the newly elected prosecutor from office. When, in July, Mayor Eric Adams protested after a bodega clerk who had defended himself from a robbery was charged with murder, it seemed as if Mr. Bragg’s troubles would never end.
But he steadied the ship in the latter half of the year. In August, the indictment of 24 people connected to a gang called Own Every Dollar underscored his office’s work on guns, while a new mental health initiative announced last month emphasized his commitment to finding alternatives to traditional prosecution.
Mr. Zeldin’s loss to Gov. Kathy Hochul in November removed an existential threat. And the conviction of the Trump Organization on 17 counts of tax fraud, scheming to defraud, conspiracy and falsifying business records marked a high point. Last week, the company was sentenced by a judge to pay the maximum fine of $1.6 million.
“Like any new administration, you need to get your sea legs, and I think now he seems to have gotten his sea legs,” said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, who was a deputy to Mr. Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
Mr. Bragg still has many critics on both the right and left of the political spectrum. Conservatives say that, too often, he is lenient with some defendants, who deserve more punishment, while progressives criticize his prosecutors for seeking harsh sentences similar to those that the office has pursued in the past. And in liberal Manhattan, the result of the continuing Trump investigation will likely have a strong bearing on how his administration is ultimately evaluated.
Still, Mr. Bragg, whose first term was far more politically charged than is normal for a first-year district attorney, has hit a stretch where his stated lack of interest in politics seems to have helped him. Though he has said he will campaign to keep his seat, he is not up for election until 2025.
“It’s good for him that he’s not such a politician at this moment,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “He’s not thinking about re-election. He’s thinking about the work.”
The Local Politics of Crime
After taking office, Mr. Bragg had to adjust to a political landscape vastly different from the one that existed when he began running in the summer of 2019. Last year was inauspicious for prosecutors holding similar beliefs, with the recall of the San Francisco district attorney, Chesa Boudin; the impeachment of Philadelphia’s district attorney, Larry Krasner; and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida’s removal of Andrew Warren in Tampa.
So it makes sense that the first uproar of Mr. Bragg’s tenure was a local one. In his first week, the new district attorney issued a directive that came to be known as the Day One memo. It instructed prosecutors to seek incarceration only for the most serious crimes — and sent many of the office’s veterans and the public into an uproar. Soon after, Mr. Zeldin began to campaign against the new district attorney.
Some policies from the memo were quickly reversed: Within a month, the office reverted to charging those accused of armed commercial robberies and gun possession as felons. Since then, Mr. Bragg seems to have had little issue pursuing traditional solutions for the most serious crimes. Faced with a sharp spike in murders and shootings, his office named a gun czar, Peter Pope. Gun possession prosecutions rose to 560 in 2022 from 492 the previous year, and 258 in 2019.
Murders and shootings each decreased 20 percent in Manhattan in 2022 compared with the previous year, outpacing a similar decline in New York as a whole. But in the borough, as in the rest of the city, other major crimes rose, including robberies, rapes and felony assaults.
“I don’t think anyone can firmly know the answer” to whether crime is going to drop, Mr. Bragg said, adding that “we’ve got particular challenges in pockets of the city.”
Some of Mr. Bragg’s critics say that he has not been tough enough on violent crime. On a grading scale of A through F, Jennifer Harrison, the founder of Victims Rights NY, gave the new district attorney a Z.
“He’s lived up to everything he said he was going to do in that Day One memo, which is a dereliction of duty,” she said, accusing Mr. Bragg of failing in numerous ways to prosecute serious criminals.
Despite the criticism, the district attorney has retained his interest in alternatives to incarceration. In March, he created a division within the office called Pathways, whose mission is to identify defendants who would benefit from programs related to mental health, substance abuse or other root causes of crime more than they would from time behind bars.
This is perhaps the most significant change from Mr. Vance’s tenure: The new district attorney has ramped up investment in finding alternatives to jail and prison, hiring 30 additional staffers to oversee that area of the office’s work and embedding deputy bureau chiefs specifically focused on the issue in each of its six trial bureaus.
Eliza Orlins, a public defender who was one of Mr. Bragg’s opponents in the Democratic primary, acknowledged that the district attorney’s office is seeking alternatives to incarceration for more of her clients. Still, she said, “an overarching thing we see with that office is that they still default to jail and prison.”
“In every single case where there is bail eligibility, the Manhattan district attorney’s office asks for exorbitant bail,” she said.
Despite the complaints, Mr. Bragg said that he was proud that his actual work was the target, rather than the vague category of “progressive prosecutor” to which he was often assigned.
“We can say that hate crime prosecutions are up, gun prosecutions are up and, at the same time, say the people we didn’t charge” were connected to critical services, he said.
The Trump Investigation
The second major challenge in Mr. Bragg’s tenure concerned the global aspect of his new job. It arrived in February, when two prosecutors leading the long-running investigation into Mr. Trump abruptly resigned. The district attorney said then that it was inappropriate for him to speak publicly about a continuing inquiry, leading to weeks of speculation about what had happened. Finally, in early April, Mr. Bragg gave interviews in which he said that the investigation was continuing, but little else.
Inquiries into the former president would never have simply disappeared. But the topic came up repeatedly, in part because Mr. Bragg’s predecessor, Mr. Vance, had in the summer of 2021 charged Mr. Trump’s company and its chief financial officer, Allen H. Weisselberg, with numerous felonies related to a tax fraud scheme.
Mr. Bragg inherited that case. Though Mr. Weisselberg took a plea deal — and was sentenced last week to five months on Rikers Island — the Trump Organization would not yield, leading to a fall trial that has been the biggest test of the district attorney’s tenure so far.
The trial lasted a little more than a month, with the prosecutors on the case, Susan Hoffinger and Joshua Steinglass, turning Mr. Weisselberg into a star witness. On Dec. 6, the Trump Organization was found guilty on all 17 counts.
The district attorney told media outlets that the conviction represented just “one chapter” and that he “cautioned against reading ahead in the book.”
“I have every faith that other members of the team who are working on other parts of this endeavor using the same approach will lead to a result that is just,” he said.
Before the Trump Organization trial concluded, people with knowledge of the matter said that the office had moved to jump-start its criminal investigation into Mr. Trump, focusing anew on a hush money payment to a porn star that had been an early focus of the inquiry before prosecutors turned their attention to the then-president’s business practices.
And since the trial ended, subpoenas — including one to a utility company — have begun to stream out of the office again, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The information they seek is unclear, but the subpoenas provide another indication that the inquiry into Mr. Trump is gaining momentum.
Mr. Bragg has said that he will follow the facts no matter where they lead, and it is far from clear that the investigation will end in an indictment. Regardless, new momentum will certainly mean new scrutiny on the district attorney.
Ben Protess contributed reporting.