Former President Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts on Tuesday, becoming the first current or former commander in chief to be arraigned on criminal charges for his alleged participation in a hush money scheme.
The highly anticipated indictment, now unsealed, includes charges of falsifying business records in connection with a six-figure payment that Trump’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, made to adult film star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election to keep her from talking about an alleged affair with Trump.
Trump is now the leading GOP candidate for president in 2024, and he has sought to turn his indictment in New York to his advantage, rallying his supporters to his cause.
The former president said little during his 56-minute appearance in New York Supreme Court, saying “not guilty” to Justice Juan Merchan after he asked for his plea.
Trump was released on his own recognizance and declined to speak with reporters when he exited the courtroom. At press time he was expected to speak at his residence in Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday night.
The brief appearance capped a whirlwind day that saw Trump dominate cable news coverage of his arraignment. Live footage of Trump’s motorcade leaving Mar-a-Lago for the airport, and them his plane taking off from Florida was shown ahead of his flight landing in New York and another motorcade rolling though the Big Apple.
Inside the courtroom, Trump showed little expression as prosecutors laid out their case, with his hands firmly clasped on the table — a contrast with his often-energized public persona.
Outside the courthouse, a wild scene unfolded, with pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators facing off and sometimes scuffling with one another.
Hundreds of people began to arrive around 9 a.m. ahead of a rally organized by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), one of the most prominent Trump supporters in Congress.
Greene’s words during the rally, however, were difficult to make out for most observers as anti-Trump protesters sought to shout and whistle her down.
While the scenes were sometimes chaotic, there was no violence along the lines of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., which some had feared ahead of Trump’s appearance.
The case against Trump in New York centers on the idea his actions in making a payment to Daniels might have affected the results of the 2016 election.
Christopher Conroy, one of the investigation’s top prosecutors, said in the courtroom that the payment was a conspiracy to “undermine the integrity of the 2016 election.”
A press release from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) said Trump was charged with “falsifying New York business records in order to conceal damaging information and unlawful activity from American voters before and after the 2016 election.”
“During the election, TRUMP and others employed a ‘catch and kill scheme to identify, purchase, and bury negative information about him and boost his electoral prospects,” Bragg said in the release. “TRUMP then went to great lengths to hide this conduct, causing dozens of false entries in business records to conceal criminal activity, including attempts to violate state and federal election laws.”
Trump faces potentially more serious investigations from Fulton County, Ga., and the Justice Department.
In Georgia, prosecutors are looking into whether he sought to unlawfully change the results of the state’s 2020 presidential election by pressuring state officials. Federal prosecutors are also considering whether he effectively unleashed a violent mob on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, with his baseless accusations that voter fraud had cost him a victory to President Biden.
Reports have been trickling out for months about the New York grand jury’s investigation, but Tuesday marks the first time the public — and Trump himself — saw the specific accusations.
The charges remain allegations, and prosecutors will now face the much higher bar of securing a conviction against the former president at trial, a process likely to stretch deep into the 2024 campaign season. Trump is not expected to appear in court again until Dec. 4.
While in court, prosecutors also raised concerns about Trump’s recent social media posts that have attacked the district attorney and the judge overseeing the case.
The judge did not impose a gag order, which would’ve prevented Trump from speaking publicly about the case outside of court.
But after Trump’s attorney, Todd Blanche, defended the posts as a reflection of Trump being “frustrated” and “upset,” the judge requested all parties in the case “refrain from making statements” that could incite violence.
Hush money payments are not illegal, but Trump is accused of falsely characterizing his payments to Cohen as a legal expense.
The initial filings from Bragg argued that Trump’s business record fraud was done in an attempt to hide violations of both state and federal campaign laws.
The court documents detail 11 checks, including nine signed directly by Trump, that were used to bury three different accounts that could be harmful to then-candidate Trump’s presidential campaign.
Beyond a $130,000 payment to Daniels, prosecutors lay out a larger deal with American Media, Inc. (AMI), the publisher of the National Enquirer, to buy damaging stories about Trump.
Payments were also made to a doorman, who received $30,000 from AMI for information alleging Trump fathered a child out of wedlock, as well as a $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
But the documents spend the most time analyzing the payment to Daniels, noting that it came after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump said he would “grab” women without asking.
According to case filings, Trump wanted to avoid paying Daniels until after the election, but shifted approach after the release of the tape.
“He instructed [Cohen] that if they could delay the payment until after the election, they could avoid paying altogether, because at that point it would not matter if the story became public,” a statement of facts filed in the case states.
Falsification of business records is a misdemeanor under New York law, but it can be enhanced to a felony if the fraud was used to conceal other unlawful activity, also raising possible jail time from one year to four years.
In a press conference Monday Tuesday Bragg said the falsely characterized payments violate a catch-all New York campaign law that bars efforts “to promote a candidacy by unlawful means.”
He said the payments also violate campaign finance limits, the same crime to which Cohen pleaded guilty.
Bragg described the case among the many financial fraud cases that are the “bread and butter” of his office.
“At its core, this case today is one with allegations like so many of our white-collar cases, allegations that someone lied, again and again, to protect their interests and evade the laws to which we are all held accountable,” he said.
This story was updated at 6:34 p.m.