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Donald Trump’s arraignment: key takeaways include 2 warnings from the judge that he behave himself

Former President Donald Trump is escorted to a courtroom, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York. Trump is set to appear in a New York City courtroom on charges related to falsifying business records in a hush money investigation, the first president ever to be charged with a crime.Former President Donald Trump is escorted to a courtroom, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York.

Mary Altaffer/AP

  • Takeaways from Tuesday’s arraignment include two separate times the judge warned Trump to behave.
  • The judge also nixed Trump’s hope of just staying home on his next court date, December 4.
  • Prosecutors said Trump’s attempt to “undermine” the 2016 election is at the core of the case.

On Tuesday, former President Donald Trump sat in custody — meaning he was not free to leave — at a defense table in the front of a Manhattan courtroom, where he pleaded not guilty to a lengthy felony indictment.

Arguably, this is the top takeaway from the dramatic hour-long proceeding.

But there were other moments of import, including two stern warnings Trump was given by New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, who urged the former president to behave himself both online and in the courtroom.

Trump also got a preview of what prosecutors in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg may someday argue at trial.

And there was some inconvenient news for him beyond his indictment, which charges Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records. He will probably have to appear in person at his next court date, December 4, the judge said, despite his lawyers’ request that he just stay at home.

Here, in no particular order, are 5 big takeaways.

1. Trump faces a gag order if he’s not careful

Trump’s First Amendment rights are “critically important,” Merchan said from the bench after prosecutors complained about the former president’s online predictions that “death and destruction” and “World War III” will result if he is indicted.

But statements that “incite violence or create civil unrest” will not be tolerated, the judge said, and could result in a gag order down the line.

“Please do not engage in words or conduct which jeopardizes the rule of law,” the judge warned, “particularly as it applies to these proceedings in this courtroom.”

The judge added: “This is a request I’m making. I’m not making it an order. But now that I have made the request, if I were to be handed something like this again in the future, I’ll have to take a closer look at it.”

Prosecutors had just handed the judge a thick packet of examples of what Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy called Trump’s “threatening rhetoric.”

These included something Trump posted to Truth Social, described by Conroy as “a picture that depicts Mr. Trump wielding a baseball bat at the head of the District Attorney,” Alvin Bragg.

Trump watched the judge with particular interest while receiving this warning to watch the rhetoric, noted one of the sketch artists in the room, Christine Cornell.

“He was absorbing exactly what the weight of that warning was,” said Cornell, a courtroom artist of some 40 years.

Trump never once paged through the indictment on the table before him, she noted — but he was fixated on the judge at that moment.

2. Trump will be kicked out if he misbehaves in court

It’s a common admonition in New York state courtrooms, called a “Parker warning.” Defendants are told by their judges early on that if they play hooky on their court dates, or get kicked out for misbehaving, the hearing or trial will go on without them.

Trump was “Parkerized,” as they call it, on Tuesday.

“This is something I do with every individual who appears before me in the courtroom,” the judge said.

“You have the right to be present at every stage of the proceedings in your case,” he said, something that allows him to assist his attorneys in their defense of him.

But if he skips court, the case will move forward without him, Merchan warned. Trump will have waived his right to be present in court.

“A second way you can lose your right or waive your right is to become disruptive,” the judge warned.

“And I do not have any reason to believe that will happen. But, if you become disruptive to such a degree that it affects my ability to preside over this case and my ability to insure that the case is treated the way it needs to be treated for both sides, I do have the authority to remove you from the courtroom and continue in your absence, do you understand that?” the judge asked.

“I do,” Trump answered.

3. Prosecutors test-drove an ‘opening statement’ 

“I didn’t realize we were going to give opening statements today,” Trump defense attorney Todd Blanche complained after Conroy, the prosecutor, said this in court: 

“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.

“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.

“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,” Conroy said, a reference to former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, the star prosecution witness.

“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,” he continued in a reference to porn star Stormy Daniels.

“After the election, defendant reimbursed the lawyer through a series of disguised monthly payments that hid the true nature of the payoff by causing a series of false business records in the records of the Trump Organization here in Manhattan,” he said.

“And that is why we’re here.”

 Trump denies having an affair with Daniels and claims the payments to Cohen were legal fees.

4. Trump learned — surprise, surprise — that criminal defendants must go to court

Even if they’re a former president, a defendant must go to court, Trump was told.

Soon after Merchan set December 4 as Trump’s next court date, one of his lawyers, Blanche, asked if his client’s attendance was necessary.

“May we ask that President Trump, his presence be waived just for that date?” the lawyer asked. 

When the judge asked why, Blanche said, “Just simply the incredible expense and effort and security issues that presented themselves with the president traveling and being in court,” Blanche said, noting, “All of lower Manhattan was shut down today.”

Conroy countered that Bragg’s office prefers defendants to be in court on their court dates.

“There is no question,” Merchan responded, “that this was a huge undertaking, today, for everyone involved, for Mr. Trump, the prosecution, the city.” 

The judge continued, “But I expect all other defendants to appear in court, even high-profile defendants.” 

Merchan denied the request that Trump be allowed to skip court next time.

5. Trump won’t be trusted with documents if the DA has his way 

Trump’s penchant for pocketing important documents — a la alleged classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago — may have preceded him to court.

Prosecutors and the defense are trying to iron out an agreement on the wording of a protective order. The order would strictly regulate what can and cannot be done with sensitive evidence in the case, including transcripts and DA notes concerning grand jury witness testimony.

They want to keep Trump on a short leash, barring him from using any of the material for any reason beyond preparing for his defense.

They also want Trump barred from taking any evidence home with him.

Under a protective order, “the defendant will be permitted to review certain sensitive materials, only in his attorney’s office,” Assistant District Attorney Catherine McCaw said.

“And he may not take copies of the documents, portions of the documents, notes he took of the documents, with him after he leaves his attorney’s offices,” she said.

The defense and prosecution are hoping to reach an agreement on the protective order, Trump attorney Susan Necheles said.

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