NEW YORK (AP) — In a historic moment on Tuesday, former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, as prosecutors accused him of orchestrating payments to two women before the 2016 US election to suppress publication of their sexual encounters with him.
Prosecutors in Manhattan allege that Trump, the first sitting or former US president to face criminal charges, falsified business records during his successful 2016 campaign to conceal a violation of election laws.
Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress, and Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, were the two women.
Trump, dressed in a dark blue suit and red tie, sat subduedly at the defense table, hands folded, as he entered his plea, flanked by his lawyers.
When asked how he pleaded, Trump, 76, said, “Not guilty.”
When the judge asked if he understood a right, Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, responded with “yes.” The judge put his hand to his ear at one point, as if to elicit an answer.
“The defendant Donald J. Trump falsified New York business records in order to conceal an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of the 2016 presidential election and other violations of election laws,” said prosecutor Chris Conroy.
While falsifying business records is a misdemeanor in New York, punishable by up to one year in prison, it is elevated to a felony punishable by up to four years when done to advance or conceal another crime, such as election law violations.
During his arraignment, prosecutors claimed that Trump made a series of threatening social media posts, including one threatening “death and destruction” if he was charged. The judge requested that the parties “refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest.”
Trump said nothing as he walked into the courtroom or as he exited an hour later.
He then returned to Florida, where his office stated he would deliver remarks at 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday (0015 GMT on Wednesday).
Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted, “Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse.” It appears to be SURREAL — WOW, they’re going to ARREST ME. I can’t believe this is happening in the United States.”
A HEARING IS SET FOR DEC. 4 BY A JUDGE
The next hearing has been scheduled for December 4 by Justice Juan Merchan. According to legal experts, a trial may not even begin for a year, and an indictment or even a conviction will not prevent Trump from running for president.
“We’re going to fight it hard,” Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, said after the arraignment, adding that Trump was frustrated, upset, and angry about the charges.
“But I’ll tell you something: he’s motivated.” And it isn’t going to deter him. And it’s not going to stymie him. And it’s exactly what he was hoping for,” Blanche added.
The charges were defended by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who pursued the case and has been accused by Trump and other Republicans of targeting him for political reasons.
“Today, we uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone is treated equally in the eyes of the law.” “No amount of money or power can change that enduring American principle,” Bragg said at a press conference.
The Manhattan grand jury that indicted Trump was convened by Bragg and heard evidence about a $130,000 payment made to Daniels in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Daniels claims she was paid to remain silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump in 2006 at a Lake Tahoe hotel.
Prosecutors claim that David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, offered to look for negative stories during Trump’s presidential campaign. Its parent company, American Media Inc, paid McDougal $150,000 to purchase the rights to her story but then kept it a secret. It also paid $30,000 to a former Trump Tower doorman to purchase the rights to an untrue story about a child Trump allegedly fathered out of wedlock.
Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has stated that he coordinated payments to Daniels and McDougal with Trump. Trump has denied having sexual relationships with either woman, but he has admitted to repaying Cohen for his payment to Daniels.
Prosecutors said Trump’s reimbursement checks to a lawyer for the suppression payments falsely stated that the money was for a “retainer agreement.” Trump was charged with falsifying his real estate company’s books with the intent to defraud.
One of the charges is that some media outlets used a technique known as “catch and kill” to bury damaging information about a third party — in this case, allegedly to benefit Trump. Trump was not charged with violating election laws, according to Bragg’s office.
“It is a felony in New York state law to falsify business records with the intent to defraud and conceal another crime.” “This case is all about 34 false statements made to cover up other crimes,” Bragg said.
On a cool and sunny early spring day in the most populous US city, Trump supporters and detractors were separated before the arraignment by police barricades, though there were some clashes.
“Let’s keep it civil, people,” a police officer advised.