Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felonies in an indictment that alleges he used hush money to bury damaging information about an affair and boost his electoral prospects in 2016.
Trump, the first former US president to be indicted, was arraigned Tuesday in lower Manhattan, where District Attorney Alvin Bragg had charged him in a broad influence scheme, even as he makes a comeback bid for the White House.
Bragg claims Trump falsified business records at his company relating to a $130 000 payment his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, made to porn star Stormy Daniels. But the DA spells out a larger effort to hide salacious news from the public to win the presidency. That effort included a $150 000 payment by the publisher of the National Enquirer to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to stay silent about an affair she claims as well, prosecutors allege.
Trump denies both alleged affairs and any illegal acts.
In August 2015, Trump “agreed with others to carry out an unlawful plan to identify and suppress negative information that could have undermined his candidacy,” prosecutor Christopher Conroy said at the arraignment. Trump sat at the defense table with his hands clasped in front of him and spoke briefly several times, including when he loudly proclaimed “Not Guilty!”
New York State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan spoke to Trump as he does to so many other defendants, warning that the former president must abide by the rules. Merchan told him several times that he is expected to appear in court and that if he doesn’t, a trial could proceed without him. The judge asked if Trump understood.
“Yes,” he replied.
Trump, 76, must now grapple with the criminal case even as he pursues the Republican nomination in the 2024 race. It comes as he faces a separate probe in Georgia of his bid to overturn the 2020 election result there. A federal special counsel is investigating those efforts and his handling of classified government documents. Any of those investigations could result in further criminal charges against Trump.
Trump also faces civil lawsuits by New York’s attorney general, who accused him of manipulating property valuations, and by a writer who alleges he raped her, which he denies.
Fingerprinted in the courthouse
He says the indictment and the pending probes and suits are baseless and part of a partisan effort to take him down. Bragg, Georgia prosecutor Fani Willis and New York AG Letitia James are Democrats. Special Counsel Jack Smith is registered as a political independent.
Trump arrived at the hearing in a motorcade and was fingerprinted in the courthouse. At 2:29 pm, he strode down the center of the courtroom, flanked by his Secret Service detail. He wore a blue suit, white shirt and bright red tie. As he sat down, he stared at six photographers. Within minutes, those images were broadcast to the world.
The 34 counts are ordinarily misdemeanors under New York law. But Bragg charged them as Class E felonies because they were committed to violate state and federal election law, he said. While Class E felonies are the least serious, they carry maximum penalties as long as four years in prison.
After the hearing, Bragg said at a news conference that the case fulfilled one of the core missions of his office — to prosecute white collar crime.
“True and accurate business records are important everywhere,” he said. “They are all the more important in Manhattan, the financial center of the world.”
‘Catch and kill’
Cohen’s payment to Daniels is at the heart of the indictment. Prosecutors allege that Trump approved the sum, which Cohen paid days before the election by taking out a home equity line of credit and setting up a shell company. Trump also approved a scheme to disguise reimbursements to Cohen as legitimate legal expenses and signed most of the checks himself, according to court filings.
Beyond Daniels, the alleged scheme included the payment to McDougal through American Media Inc., which published the National Enquirer. AMI later admitted that it paid for McDougal’s story with no intention of publishing it, a practice known as “catch and kill.”
Trump has repeatedly assailed the credibility and character of Cohen, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to tax evasion, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and has become a fierce critic of Trump. He testified twice to the grand jury and would be a star witness at a Trump trial.
Back in Florida on Tuesday evening, Trump gave an address at his Mar-a-Lago estate, tying the indictment to the myriad investigations he has faced since 2016.
‘There is no crime’
“As it turns out, virtually everybody that has looked at this case, including RINOs and hard-core Democrats, say there is no crime and it should never have been brought,” he said. “Even people that aren’t big fans have said it. They said this is not the right thing to do. It’s an insult to our country, as the world is already laughing at us.”
The New York prosecution has sparked an intense national debate and a showdown between Republican and Democratic leaders, including one between Bragg and House Republicans seeking his testimony about the probe.
Trump has said the judge has it in for him. Merchan presided over the state’s case against Allen Weisselberg, the former Trump Organization chief financial officer who pleaded guilty to tax fraud in August. Weisselberg went on to testify against two Trump Organization units convicted of tax fraud in December, also under Merchan.
Those cases, both brought by the Manhattan DA’s office, have some overlap with the current prosecution. If Weisselberg testified against his old boss at trial, it would be a coup for Bragg.
Bragg inherited the case from his predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., but then paused it, not convinced it was ready. Two of his prosecutors quit, including one who became a vocal critic.
The hush money was previously investigated by Manhattan federal prosecutors who gave Weisselberg limited immunity. He testified before a federal grand jury probing the payments in 2018. US prosecutors decided against charging Trump over the payments, in part because the Justice Department has a decades-old policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
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