Former U.S. President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a New York state court to a 34-count indictment accusing him of falsifying business records in furtherance of an unspecified crime – described by prosecutors as a bid to hide a hush money payment to a porn actress to help him win the presidency in 2016.
In the first-ever criminal case against a current or former U.S. leader, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg alleged in a "statement of facts" accompanying the indictment that Trump "repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election."
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As part of the plan, according to the accompanying statement, Trump allegedly orchestrated a $130,000 hush money payment to adult film actor Stormy Daniels just prior to the election to silence her about her claim of a one-night tryst with Trump a decade earlier. Trump has long denied the sexual liaison but not the payment.
In addition, the prosecution alleges that with Trump's encouragement, political allies at American Media Inc., the publisher of the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer, paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal, Playboy magazine's 1998 Playmate of the Year, to buy her written account claiming she had a months-long affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007 and then kill the article. Trump has also denied McDougal's claim she had a relationship with him.
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After Trump's arraignment on the charges, prosecutor Bragg said Trump participated in the "catch and kill" scheme at the tabloid to buy and suppress negative information about him ahead of the 2016 election to "help Mr. Trump's chance of winning."
The fact sheet accompanying the indictment also alleged that the tabloid paid $30,000 to a doorman at Trump Tower, the former president's New York residence and office, to suppress his claim that Trump had fathered an out-of-wedlock child, which the tabloid later realized was unfounded.
Trump, his lawyers and many Republicans have contended that Bragg, an elected Democratic prosecutor, is engaging in a "political witch hunt." One of Trump's attorneys, in brief comments after the hearing, said the charges signal that the rule of law was "dead" in the United States.
Hours after his court appearance in New York City, Trump told a crowd inside his Mar-a-Lago private resort in the state of Florida that "I never thought anything like this could happen in America."
The former president added: "The only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it."
Bragg should be prosecuted for leaking grand jury documents or at the minimum resign, said Trump of the Manhattan district attorney who put forward the nearly three dozen felony charges against him, suggesting the case was brought to interfere with the 2024 presidential election.
Polls show Trump comfortably leading all other declared and anticipated contenders for next year's Republican Party nomination.
Trump, during his 25-minute speech, also verbally attacked the judge in his criminal case.
"I have a Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family," said the former president of Acting New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan.
Trump also spoke of other legal troubles he faces in New York and Georgia, as well as the matter of a special prosecutor looking into whether he violated the Presidential Records Act by taking classified documents to his Florida home after leaving the White House.
In all those other cases, Trump asserted, he did nothing wrong.
Bragg said that his office has a history of "vigorously enforcing white-collar crime" and that keeping accurate business records is especially important in New York, the financial center of the world.
Each of the 34 counts in the indictment relate to entries Trump allegedly made on his corporate books recording payments made to Michael Cohen, his onetime lawyer and political fixer, to reimburse him for using his own funds to make the payment to Daniels.
Cohen pleaded guilty to offenses related to the payment to Daniels and served more than a year in prison. While once loyal to Trump, he later turned against him, testifying before the grand jury investigating the case, and is expected to be a key witness at Trump's eventual trial.
But the trial could be as much as a year away, coming amid Trump's bid to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination and reclaim the White House. Bragg's lawyers asked for a January 2024 trial, but a Trump lawyer suggested his defense team might need until next spring to prepare. The next scheduled court date in the case is December 4.
Trump entered his not-guilty plea at his arraignment before Merchan after the jurist unveiled the indictment.
There was no live television broadcast of the proceeding after Merchan had rejected requests from media outlets to air it. But the justice allowed a small group of photographers to take still pictures before the proceeding began.
The former president, wearing his customary blue suit and red tie, appeared somber, intent and contemplative in one photo taken moments after he took his seat amid his defense attorneys at the defendant's table.
His defense lawyers Todd Blanche, Susan Necheles and Joe Tacopina sat on either side of him as armed courtroom security guards stood behind him.
Trump has long denied the claim of Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, who said she had a one-night encounter with him after they met at a golf tournament in 2006. But Trump has not denied that Cohen made the payment to Daniels, and that reimbursement payments to Cohen were recorded on a Trump Organization business ledger as legal expenses. Trump disputes the payment was related to his presidential campaign seven years ago.
Trump's lawyers say he has no intention of negotiating a plea deal in the case. The outcome of a trial could hinge on the intent behind the payment to Daniels.
Tacopina on Sunday told CNN the payment to Daniels was a "personal expenditure, not a campaign expenditure" designed to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The Wall Street Journal first reported the hush money, but not until early 2018, more than a year after the election.
Trump, now 76, oversaw his real estate business empire and was a fixture in the city's glitzy social world for decades before becoming president. But on Tuesday, for the first time, he was appearing in his home city as a defendant, even as early national polls show him leading the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Shortly before the arraignment, Trump, like any criminal defendant, was booked and fingerprinted. But, authorities said, in deference to his standing as a former president, he was not handcuffed or paraded before photographers in a so-called "perp walk" and apparently was not required to have a mug shot taken.
Dozens of police assembled at the courthouse where large crowds gathered.
There appeared to be few street confrontations among those people supporting Trump and opposing Bragg's prosecution of the case and those calling for a conviction.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams had warned that "rabble rousers" coming to the city to protest had better behave.
"Our message is clear and simple: Control yourselves. New York City is our home, not a playground for your misplaced anger," he said.
Since his indictment Thursday, Trump's campaign said it has raised $8 million and logged more than 16,000 volunteer sign-ups, which campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said were "key indicators that Americans from all backgrounds are sick and tired of the weaponization of the justice system against President Trump and his supporters."
The former president is also facing other criminal investigations that could result in more charges against him or possibly exonerate him of wrongdoing. They include federal probes of his efforts to upend his 2020 reelection loss to Biden, including Trump's role in encouraging supporters to try to block Congress from certifying Biden's victory on January 6, 2021, and his retention of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. He was required to turn over the material to the National Archives when he left office.
Meanwhile, in a narrower case, a prosecutor in the Southern state of Georgia is probing Trump's efforts there to reverse Biden's win when Trump asked state election officials to "find" him enough votes to claim victory.