Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty in a history-making moment on Tuesday to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, as prosecutors accused him of orchestrating payments to two women before the 2016 U.S. election to suppress publication of their sexual encounters with him.
Prosecutors in Manhattan allege that Trump – the first sitting or former U.S. president to face criminal charges – falsified business records to conceal a violation of election laws during his successful 2016 campaign.
The two women were adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Wearing a dark blue suit and red tie, Trump sat, subdued, with his hands folded at the defense table as he entered his plea flanked by his lawyers.
“Not guilty,” Trump, 76, said when asked how he pleaded.
The front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination in 2024, Trump responded with answers like “yes” when the judge asked him if he understood a right. At one point, the judge put his hand to his ear as if to prompt an answer.
Prosecutor Chris Conroy said: “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.”
While falsifying business records in New York on its own is a misdemeanor punishable by no more than 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.
Prosecutors during the arraignment said Trump made a series of threatening social media posts, including one threatening “death and destruction” if he was charged. The judge asked the parties to “please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest.”
Trump said nothing as he entered the courtroom or when he left roughly an hour later.
Afterwards, he flew home to Florida where his office said he would deliver remarks at 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday (0015 GMT on Wednesday).
Earlier in the day, Trump posted on social media: “Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL – WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America.”
Justice Juan Merchan set the next hearing for Dec. 4. Legal experts said a trial may not even get under way for a year, and indictment or even a conviction will not legally prevent Trump from running for president.
“We’re going to fight it hard,” Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Trump, told reporters after the arraignment, adding that Trump was frustrated, upset and angry about the charges.
“But I’ll tell you what – he’s motivated. And it’s not going to stop him. And it’s not going to slow him down. And it’s exactly what he expected,” Blanche added.
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, defended the charges.
“We today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law. No amount of money and no amount of power changes that enduring American principle,” Bragg told a news conference.
The Manhattan grand jury convened by Bragg that indicted Trump heard evidence about a $130,000 payment made to Daniels in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Daniels has said she was paid to keep silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump at a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2006.
The former publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, offered to look out for negative stories during Trump’s presidential campaign, prosecutors said. American Media Inc, its parent company, paid McDougal $150,000 to buy the rights to her story but then kept it secret. It also paid a former Trump Tower doorman $30,000 to buy the rights to an untrue story about a child Trump had allegedly fathered out of wedlock.
Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has said he coordinated with Trump on payments to Daniels and McDougal. Trump has denied having had sexual relationships with either woman, but has acknowledged reimbursing Cohen for his payment to Daniels.
Trump’s reimbursement checks to a lawyer for the suppression payments falsely stated that the money was for a “retainer agreement,” prosecutors said. The indictment accused Trump of falsifying his real estate company’s books with intent to defraud.
One element of the charges is a method known as “catch and kill” used by some media outlets to bury damaging information about a third party – in this case allegedly to benefit Trump. Bragg’s office did not charge Trump with violating election laws.
“Under New York state law, it is a felony to falsify business records with intent to defraud and intent to conceal another crime. That is exactly what this case is about – 34 false statements made to cover up other crimes,” Bragg said.
On a cool and sunny early spring day in the most-populous U.S. city, Trump supporters and detractors before the arraignment were separated by barricades set up by police to try to keep order, though there were some confrontations.
“Let’s keep it civil, folks,” a police officer told them.