Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to his alleged role in hush money payments toward the end of his 2016 presidential campaign — the first time a former president has had to plead to criminal charges.
The indictment was unsealed in a proceeding before Judge Juan Merchan in criminal court in Manhattan. Trump was flanked by his lawyers inside the courtroom as prosecutors outlined their case, alleging he made covert and illegal payments to affect the 2016 election. He faces a maximum of four years in prison if convicted.
Asked for his plea, Trump answered, “Not guilty.”
Prosecutor Chris Conroy told the court that Trump engaged in an “illegal conspiracy” to aid his campaign and “undermine the election.”
The statement of facts compiled by prosecutors in conjunction with the indictment said 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.”
It outlined three people who received hush money payments: adult film star Stormy Daniels, Playboy model Karen McDougal and a former Trump Tower doorman who’d claimed to have a story about a child Trump had out of wedlock.
Live updates: Trump pleads not guilty to 34 felony charges
Daniels was paid $130,000 by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, while McDougal and the doorman were paid $150,000 and $30,000, respectively, by AMI, the publishers of the National Enquirer.
The Enquirer later concluded that the doorman story was not true, and it wanted to release the doorman from the agreement, but it held off on doing so until after the election at the request of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, prosecutors said. The court filing said Trump thanked AMI CEO David Pecker for his help by inviting him to dinner at the White House in the summer of 2017.
The indictment said the falsified records Trump signed off on were all made in 2017, when he was president. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told reporters the false statements were “made to cover up other crimes,” including violations of New York election law and federal campaign finance limits.
Addressing supporters at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Tuesday night, Trump said, “I never thought anything like this could happen in America.”
“The only crime I’ve committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it,” he said, calling the case “fake.”
“It should be dropped immediately,” he said.
The legal troubles, media spectacle and porn-star-hush-money salaciousness at the heart of the case are a new chapter for the New York tycoon-turned-TV star-turned-politician, whose career has careened from scandal to success for four decades. This time, unlike his bankrupted casinos or his failed marriages, many of Trump’s supporters and detractors argue, the fate of American democracy is hanging in the balance as the former president increasingly conflates any legal woes as an effort to illegitimately deny him a return to power.
Conroy also told the judge prosecutors were “very concerned” about Trump’s inflammatory social media posts about Bragg, other prosecutors and the judge, saying they could have an impact on jurors and witnesses.
Trump attorney Todd Blanche told the judge his client is “upset” and was simply exercising his First Amendment rights. The judge warned both sides against escalating their rhetoric but did not issue any type of gag order. “Please refrain from making statements that would incite violence or civil unrest,” Merchan said.
‘Repeatedly and fraudulently’
Trump arrived at the courthouse at 100 Centre St. in lower Manhattan in a presidential-style motorcade from Trump Tower in midtown, where he’d stayed overnight. He was informed he was under arrest, fingerprinted and processed ahead of his arraignment.
“Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America,” he said in a post on his social media platform, Truth Social, which published as he was arriving at the courthouse.
With the failures of Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot still fresh in officials’ minds, security was high in the courthouse and nearby areas as the police department, court officers and the Secret Service braced for protests amid the unprecedented arraignment of a former president.
With a media circus outside, Trump was escorted out of the courthouse and back into his car afterward. He flew back to his Florida home on his private jet immediately after the hearing.
In a statement, Bragg said his office alleges Trump “repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal crimes that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”
He said “the trail of money and lies exposes a pattern that, the People allege, violates one of New York’s basic and fundamental business laws.”
“As this office has done time and time again, we today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law.”
Blanche called the charges “really disappointing.”
“It’s sad, and we’re going to fight it hard,” he said, saying Trump is “upset and frustrated and disappointed and mad that this happened.”
Trump last month called for “protests” in the event of his arrest, and he later ratcheted up his rhetoric, warning of “potential death and destruction” if he was charged. He continued to post overnight on Truth Social, leveling criticism at the prosecutor.
“[I]f he wants to really clean up his reputation, he will do the honorable thing and, as District Attorney, INDICT HIMSELF,” Trump said of Bragg, a Democrat, whom he accused of leaking details of the indictment to the media.
Trump, 76, has also used the indictment to raise money for his 2024 campaign, which announced Monday evening that it had raised $7 million since a grand jury voted to indict him Thursday.
Hundreds of pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators gathered in a small park across from the courthouse ahead of his scheduled appearance, including Reps. George Santos, R-N.Y., and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and some of the exchanges between the competing camps grew heated.
Police estimated there were 300 pro-Trump demonstrators near the courthouse and 150 anti-Trump protesters.
A scheduled appearance by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a top Trump ally, was cut short after she was drowned out by whistles that had been handed out by another Trump supporter.
Mayor Eric Adams told reporters at a news conference Monday that the city was ready for unrest. “We are prepared,” he said.
Shortly before noon, however, protesters were still outnumbered by the mass of international news media that descended on the area around the courthouse, including reporters from Brazil, Germany, France, Finland and Sweden.
Under a 2019 New York state law that Trump as president criticized as being too soft on crime, the charges he faces don’t qualify for bail, because they’re nonviolent offenses. Legal experts said the judge could restrict Trump’s travel but is unlikely to do so because he’s running for president and isn’t considered a flight risk.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing, calling the investigation by Bragg’s office a “witch hunt” and accusing Bragg of being a “racist.”
Trump wrote Monday on Truth Social that he didn’t believe he could get a fair trial in Manhattan, where he lived for decades and made his name before he moved to Florida during his presidency. The actions at the center of the investigations took place in New York, where Trump’s campaign was also headquartered at the time.
“The Corrupt D.A. has no case,” he wrote. “What he does have is a venue where it is IMPOSSIBLE for me to get a Fair Trial (it must be changed!)”
He also called for a new judge to preside over the case, saying he believes Merchan is “Trump Hating.” He “must be changed!” Trump wrote on his website. He has also said Merchan — who presided over last year’s criminal trial against the Trump Organization and its former chief financial officer, which led to multiple convictions, was “hand-picked” by Bragg.
Court officials have said that Merchan was randomly assigned to oversee the grand jury investigation and that judges who supervise such probes generally try any cases that come out of the grand jury.
The last time Trump was in a Manhattan courthouse was for jury duty in 2015, when he praised the American legal system as a “great … system that works.”
Hush money payments
The DA’s investigation centered on the hush money payments made ahead of the 2016 election to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump. He has denied the affairs and any wrongdoing.
Cohen, then Trump’s lawyer, paid Daniels $130,000 in the closing days of the campaign. He has said he made the payment at Trump’s direction, and Trump had acknowledged repaying Cohen through payments that were labeled as legal expenses.
Prosecutors also questioned witnesses about allegations that $150,000 in hush money had been previously paid to McDougal, the former Playboy playmate. AMI acknowledged in a federal court case involving Cohen that it had paid McDougal for the rights to her story with no intention of ever publishing it.
Cohen — who testified before the grand jury — acknowledged he was involved in both payments in a guilty plea in Manhattan federal court in 2018.
The arraignment is just the beginning of a lengthy legal process that could take months or years to resolve. The case is expected to go to trial next year.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com