NEW YORK — Donald Trump appeared in a Manhattan courtroom Tuesday for a moment unprecedented in American history, pleading not guilty to 34 felony counts related to payments intended to silence an adult-film actress during his 2016 presidential campaign — a scheme that prosecutors said amounted to an illegal conspiracy to win the White House.
He is the first former or sitting U.S. president to be criminally charged.
Dressed in his trademark blue suit and red tie, Trump wore a subdued expression as he sat at the defense table in the courtroom of New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, flanked by four lawyers.
He did not speak to waiting cameras or members of the public as he entered or exited the Manhattan criminal court building, though he raised a clenched fist as he left Trump Tower on the way to the courthouse. Trump left New York immediately after the arraignment and flew to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home and private club, where he spoke Tuesday night.
In a meandering speech, Trump ticked through a litany of grievances and exaggerated or false claims, as he sought to discredit the case against him and declared it “an insult to our country.”
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America. Never thought it could happen,” he said. “The only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.”
The prosecution of a former president sets up an extraordinary test for the judicial system amid a viciously partisan environment: Trump, who is again seeking the Republican nomination for president, already has verbally attacked Merchan and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D), calling the case against him a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
Prosecutors pressed the judge to expedite a trial schedule to begin in January, but Trump’s team said that was too ambitious and suggested next spring as a more appropriate target. Either way, the trial could take place during the heart of the Republican primary campaign season.
Trump is not expected to appear in court again until at least December, but his attorneys will file what is likely to be a lengthy set of motions in August, and prosecutors must respond in writing six weeks later. Merchan would then potentially order hearings and set a trial date.
Bragg and his investigative team spent months probing whether Trump falsified business records connected to the hush money payments in a way that could constitute a campaign finance violation — a set of facts and allegations that some lawyers called a “zombie” case because it has lingered, seemingly lifeless but not actually dead, for years.
The 16-page indictment alleges that Trump improperly falsified business records to conceal $130,000 in reimbursement payments to his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who had paid off the adult-film actress Stephanie Clifford, known professionally as Stormy Daniels. She claimed to have had a sexual relationship years earlier with Trump, who has denied it. Falsifying business records is a felony in New York when there is an “intent to defraud” that includes an intent to “commit another crime or to aid or conceal” a crime.
Bragg told reporters after the arraignment that the plot was part of a broader effort by Trump and his associates to skirt New York and federal election laws by making payments to Daniels and at least two others to suppress potentially politically damaging personal information while he was running for president.
“Beginning in about August of 2015, the defendant agreed with others to carry out an unlawful plan to identify and suppress negative information that could have undermined his candidacy for president,” prosecutor Christopher Conroy said at the start of Trump’s arraignment.
“As part of that plan, a lawyer employed by the Trump Organization made a covert and illegal $130,000 payment at the defendant’s direction. The purpose of the payment was to avoid negative attention to the defendant’s campaign by suppressing information about an allegedly sexual encounter between defendant and an adult-film actress.”
Though the charging documents do not specify which additional laws Trump allegedly violated, Bragg said that it is a crime under state law to conspire to promote a political candidacy by unlawful means and that the wire payments exceeded federal campaign contribution limits. He said his office routinely prosecutes cases involving the falsification of financial records, an apparent rebuttal to the claim by Trump and his legal team that the charges are aimed at dethroning a powerful Republican politician.
“True and accurate business records are important everywhere, to be sure, but they are all the more important in Manhattan, the financial center of the world,” Bragg said. “That’s why we have a history in the Manhattan DA’s office of vigorously enforcing white-collar crime. … This charge can be said to be the bread and butter of our white-collar work.”
In a pair of posts on Truth Social, a media company he co-founded, Trump said that the hearing had no surprises and that prosecutors had “no case” against him. “There was nothing done illegally!”
Trump’s defense team denounced the state’s case as legally thin and meritless and suggested that the former president, who polls show is the early front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, is being unfairly targeted by Democrats. Legal experts have noted that it is not against the law to pay hush money in an effort to suppress negative information.
“Today is the indication of how the rule of law died in this country,” Joe Tacopina, one of Trump’s lawyers who attended the hearing, told reporters afterward. “If this man’s name was not Donald Trump, there is no scenario in which we’d be here right now based on these charges.”
Some Republican politicians also rallied to the former president’s defense, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) accusing Bragg on Twitter of “invoking federal law to bring politicized charges against President Trump.”
Even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict Trump in two impeachment trials, said that the Manhattan prosecutor “has stretched to reach felony criminal charges in order to fit a political agenda.”
“I believe President Trump’s character and conduct make him unfit for office,” Romney said in a statement. “No one is above the law, not even former presidents, but everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law. The prosecutor’s overreach sets a dangerous precedent for criminalizing political opponents and damages the public’s faith in our justice system.”
In addition to the New York case, Trump, 76, is facing three other criminal investigations, including Justice Department probes of his handling of classified documents after he left office in 2021, and his potential involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol and efforts to overturn the election results. Local prosecutors in Georgia are examining Trump’s unsuccessful efforts to pressure state officials to falsely declare him the winner there over Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
Despite Trump’s unprecedented legal jeopardy, however, being charged with — or found guilty of — a crime does not disqualify him from running for office. The former president has sought to use the onslaught of media attention around the New York indictment to shore up political support among his party’s elected leadership and conservative base, as well as to bolster fundraising.
Hours before the arraignment, Trump’s campaign sent a fundraising email to supporters in which Trump warned that the United States is turning into a “Marxist Third World country that … IMPRISONS its political opposition,” and asked for more donations as “I will be out of commission for the next few hours.” On Truth Social, he posted that the experience is “SURREAL,” adding: “WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America.”
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Story courtesy of The Washington Post