When he was running for Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a son of Harlem and onetime Black student leader, spoke of his dream of “transforming” what is arguably the nation’s premier law enforcement office “to deliver safety and justice for all”.

In the event, Bragg will almost certainly be remembered for Donald Trump.

A little more than a year into what has been a stormy tenure, the Manhattan DA is on the cusp of making history as he weighs bringing criminal charges against a former US president. A grand jury has been hearing evidence and could hand up an indictment any day after a tortuous, four-year investigation initiated by Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance. According to his social media posts, Trump, himself, expected to have been arrested by now.

The charges Bragg is contemplating stem from a $130,000 payment to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels, just before the 2016 election. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, has testified that he paid Daniels on Trump’s behalf to buy her silence about a 2006 affair with the then candidate. Trump denies having had any liaison with Daniels (whom he recently called “horse face”) and has dismissed the probe as “politically motivated”.

The case threatens to split open an already divided nation and is hovering over the 2024 election. Trump has raised fears of a January 6 repeat by calling his supporters into the streets, although so far only a few have turned up by the courthouses in lower Manhattan. In Washington, Republicans have promised to investigate Bragg and one, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, said he should be jailed.

Former prosecutors, meanwhile, stand in awe of a case they say is magnitudes greater than any brought by the legendary Robert Morgenthau. During his 34-year reign as Manhattan DA he transformed a local prosecutor’s office into one that bestrides the world, thanks to the powerful financial and corporate interests headquartered there and his own ambition.

“It’s the biggest case in the history of the office, and that’s a weighty thing,” a former prosecutor said. Trailing that sentiment is the essential question: Does Bragg have the goods?

To those who know him, Bragg, 49, is even-keeled, well-liked within the office and lacking in the narcissism and ego that are customary for New York politicians. While that may be personally admirable, Bragg’s temperament has stirred concerns about whether he has the right talents to oversee a case that is sure to transcend the usual bounds of the law.

“People might riot,” a New York political adviser warned. “How are they going to explain this to America?”

Bragg knows what it is to operate in different worlds. He was raised in Harlem, where he still lives, and grew up attending the local Abyssinian Baptist Church. He also experienced the rougher elements of the neighbourhood.

A formative, and traumatic, experience occurred when police held a gun to the head of the 15-year-old Bragg during a routine “stop-and-frisk” search — an experience he discussed regularly during his 2021 campaign and which gave him an early understanding of the judicial system.

Yet even as a boy, Bragg was simultaneously navigating elite, largely white institutions. He attended Manhattan’s prestigious Trinity School and then went to Harvard. As president of the university’s Black Student Association, he gained a reputation as a conciliator among campus groups, according to a 1995 profile in the Crimson, Harvard’s college newspaper. “There is a definite sense of the anointed about him,” wrote Anna Wilde, noting that Bragg kept a map of Harlem in his Cambridge dorm room.

After Harvard Law School Bragg did stints in the New York attorney-general’s office and the Southern District of New York. He returned to the AG’s office to focus on police misconduct. Although his office would open more than a dozen investigations it did not win any convictions, and lost two high-profile cases at trial. “There’s no shame in an acquittal. You bring the cases that you believe in,” Bragg said in May 2021, when opponents hammered him during the Democratic primary.

Criminal justice reform was central to a campaign launched during a national reckoning about race after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. But when Bragg took office in January 2022, many New Yorkers had become gripped by fear of rising crime and the new DA failed to sense the shifting political winds. A “day one” memo to staff — in which he instructed them to no longer prosecute minor crimes — provoked a firestorm. “Alvin made some rookie mistakes,” one admiring lawyer conceded.

Around the same time, the Trump investigation appeared to unravel. Vance’s team had pursued the hush money case but came to see another as more promising: Trump’s habit of exaggerating the value of his assets, which, they believed, helped him secure bank loans and other benefits.

But, hindered by the Trump legal team’s delaying tactics and the disruption of Covid, they failed to secure an indictment before Vance left office. When Bragg took over he pumped the brakes — prompting the two prosecutors overseeing the probe to quit, with one blasting Bragg’s reluctance to prosecute as “misguided and completely contrary to the public interest”.

Those sympathetic to Bragg complain he was thrust into an impossible position. “If Cy had an indictable case, he would have indicted,” one said. It was only natural, they added, for the new DA to make his own judgments.

Bragg and his team would eventually conclude that the valuations case was problematic but that the so-called “zombie case” was worth reviving. One charge they have considered is falsification of business records, based on Cohen’s claim that Trump reimbursed him in instalments that were then recorded in the company books as legal fees. Those payments might also fall foul of federal campaign finance laws.

It is difficult to assess the merits of such a case without seeing the evidence. Some former prosecutors view it as legitimate, and the ultimate example of American justice served without fear or favour.

Still, Cohen, a convicted felon, would make a problematic witness. And in order to rise from a misdemeanour to a more serious felony, the case may rely on an untested combination of state and federal laws. Even some who despise the former president fear his pursuers may have become blinded by their own investigation. “Alvin is under a lot of pressure from people who are obsessed with Trump, inside and outside that office,” said one former prosecutor. “[Trump’s] not worth what we’re doing to our criminal justice system.”

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