On Deadline, Decoding the Trump Indictment

While working as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Michael Rothfeld had to read and annotate 29 pages of documents related to the charges against Donald Trump in just a few hours.

On Deadline, Decoding the Trump Indictment

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Michael Rothfeld was an investigative reporter at The New York Times' Metro Desk. He received a press release shortly after 3:30 pm on Tuesday: The indictment against Donald J. Trump has been unveiled. It was time to go.

Rothfeld spent the next few hours going through the 16-page document that charged Mr. Trump on 34 counts of falsifying records of business in the first-degree, which is a low-level crime in New York State. The charges revolve around a hush money deal made with porn star Stormy Danis during the 2016 presidential election. (Mr. Trump has pleaded guilty.) Mr. Rothfeld examined a 13-page "statement of fact" in which Manhattan district attorney Alvin L. Bragg outlined an elaborate scheme he claimed Mr. Trump and other conspirators orchestrated to avoid negative media during the 2016 election campaign.

Mr. Rothfeld was a member of The Wall Street Journal team that won the Pulitzer Prize for 2019 for their reporting on the hush money deals done on behalf of President Trump. He began annotating documents for an interactive Times article, allowing readers to view the files with expert context. Charlie Smart, a Graphics Desk editor who started brainstorming in mid-March, created the format. Smart stated that he was unsure when the indictment would arrive. But we wanted to prepare.

Dagny Sals, Metro's deputy editor, and Mr. Smart, who reviewed each annotation as Mr. Rothfeld finished it, added it to the articles. The annotated document was also published in print on Wednesday, along with the online display.

In an interview with Mr. Rothfeld, he explained how he approaches the annotation process. He also discussed why readers benefit from seeing the original documents.

What was your first action after receiving the documents?

First, I skimmed through the indictment. The indictment was replete with echoes so I didn't go through it all. The 34 counts were the same, but some of them were different in terms of what records Trump was accused to have falsified.

After I understood the structure of the document and the repetitions, I selected an example to be annotated and explained how context was also applicable to other charges.

Charlie created a Google Doc and I entered my copy there: the page number, the section that I wanted to highlight, and the text for my annotation. Charlie edited the text in the Google Doc, before he put it in the actual document.

How long did you take to publish the first version?

We posted the documents as soon as we received them, without annotations. This was just to make sure that people could see them. Then I continued to add annotations. I had a good knowledge of legal issues, and the Trump hush money payments.

You were able to make any annotations beforehand?

It was impossible to pre-write anything without first knowing the details of the indictment.

How did you balance the need to explain legal terms with the context of specific details in this indictment.

I wanted to mention some basics, like the way this indictment was made and that it was decided by a grand jury of New Yorkers sitting for several months. I then highlighted the 34th instance of this particular crime Trump has been charged with and explained that the offense is more than just a misdemeanor, but it's the lowest level felony. I did not want to use technical language. I wanted to make sure that people understood the context and significance in the most straightforward way possible.

What are the benefits of allowing readers to view the original documents?

This helps them trust the information they read, rather than relying solely on what I choose to highlight in a standard article. It allows them to see the whole process, and a little expert guidance will help them understand what's going on.

What surprised you?

The second document I read, the statement facts, was full of narrative and color. This one was more interesting to annotate, because I could follow the story told by the district prosecutor about how Trump paid hush-money to unnamed figures throughout the 2016 presidential election. I could read the document and tell you, "OK, here's the beginning of the story of Stormy, who is here referred as Woman 2." This would allow you to follow along while you were reading it. I felt like a narrator.