April 4, 2023 - 7:10 am
Updated April 4, 2023 - 6:53 pm
NEW YORK — A stone-faced Donald Trump made a momentous court appearance Tuesday as the only ex-president to be charged with a crime as he was confronted with a 34-count felony indictment accusing him in a scheme to bury allegations of extramarital affairs during his first White House campaign.
The arraignment in a Manhattan courtroom was a stunning — and humbling — spectacle for the former president, putting him face-to-face with prosecutors who bluntly accused him of criminal conduct and setting the stage for a possible criminal trial in the city where he decades ago became a celebrity.
The indictment centers on allegations that Trump falsified internal business records at his private company while trying to cover up an effort to illegally influence the 2016 election by arranging payments that silenced claims potentially harmful to his candidacy. It includes 34 counts of fudging records related to checks Trump sent to his personal lawyer and problem-solver to reimburse him for his role in paying off a porn actor who said she had an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump years earlier.
“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 Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy.
Trump, somber and silent as he entered and exited the Manhattan courtroom, said “not guilty” in a firm voice while facing a judge who warned him to refrain from rhetoric that could inflame or cause civil unrest. All told, the ever-verbose Trump, who for weeks before Tuesday’s arraignment had assailed the case against him as political persecution, uttered only 10 words — though he did appear to glare for a period at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor who brought the case.
As he returned to his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, where he delivered a primetime address to hundreds of supporters, Trump again protested his innocence and asserted on his Truth Social platform that the “hearing was shocking to many in that they had no ‘surprises,’ and therefore, no case.”
In his speech, Trump lashed out anew at the prosecution and attacked in bitter terms the prosecutor and the judge presiding over the case despite being admonished hours earlier about incendiary rhetoric. In a sign of his deepening legal woes, Trump also steered his speech into a broadside against a separate Justice Department investigation into the mishandling of classified documents.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America,” Trump said of the New York indictment. “This fake case was brought only to interfere with the upcoming 2024 election and it should be dropped immediately.”
The crowd at Mar-a-Lago included supporters like failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and longtime ally Roger Stone. Trump’s wife, Melania, was not present.
Even so, the indictment amounts to a remarkable reckoning for Trump after years of investigations into his personal, business and political dealings. It shows how even as Trump is looking to reclaim the White House in 2024, he is shadowed by investigations related to his behavior in the two prior elections, with prosecutors in Atlanta and Washington scrutinizing efforts by Trump and his allies to undo the 2020 presidential election — probes that could produce even more charges.
In the New York case, each count of falsifying business records, a felony, is punishable by up to four years in prison — though it’s not clear if a judge would impose any prison time if Trump is convicted. The next court date is December 4 — two months before Republicans begin their nominating process in earnest — and Trump will again be expected to appear.
A conviction would not prevent Trump from running for or winning the presidency in 2024.
The arraignment also delved into Trump’s rhetoric on the case, with prosecutors at one point handing printouts of his social media posts to the judge and defense lawyers as Trump looked on. Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan did not impose a gag order but told Trump’s lawyers to urge him to refrain from posts that could encourage unrest.
The broad contours of the case have long been known, focusing on scheme that prosecutors say began months into his candidacy in 2015, as his celebrity past collided with his presidential ambitions.
Though prosecutors expressed confidence in the case, a conviction is no sure thing given the legal complexities of the allegations, the application of state election laws to a federal election and prosecutors’ likely reliance on a key witness, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to false statements.
It centers on payoffs to two women, porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, who said they had extramarital sexual encounters with Trump years earlier, as well as to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about a child he alleged the former president had out of of wedlock.
“It’s not just about one payment. It is 34 false statements and business records that were concealing criminal conduct,” Bragg told reporters, when asked how the three separate cases were connected.
Hush money payments
All 34 counts against Trump are linked to a series of checks that were written to Cohen to reimburse him for his role in paying off Daniels. Those payments, made over 12 months, were recorded in various internal company documents as being for a legal retainer that prosecutors say didn’t exist. Cohen testified before the grand jury and is expected to be a star prosecution witness.
Nine of those monthly checks were paid out of Trump’s personal accounts, but records related to them were maintained in the Trump Organization’s data system.
Prosecutors allege that the first instance of Trump directing hush money payments came in the fall of 2015, when a former Trump Tower doorman was trying to sell information about an alleged out-of-wedlock child fathered by Trump.
David Pecker, a Trump friend and the publisher of the National Enquirer, made a $30,000 payment to the doorman to acquire the exclusive rights to the story, pursuant to an agreement to protect Trump during his presidential campaign, according to the indictment. Pecker’s company later determined the doorman’s story was false, but is alleged to have enforced the doorman’s confidentiality at Cohen’s urging until after Election Day.
Trump denies having sexual liaisons with both Daniels and McDougal and has denied any wrongdoing involving payments.
After his arraignment, Trump was returning to his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, for a primetime address to campaign supporters. At least 500 prominent supporters have been invited, with some of the most pro-Trump congressional Republicans expected to attend.
The day’s schedule, with its striking blend of legal and political calendar items, represents the new split-screen reality for Trump as he submits to the dour demands of the American criminal justice system while projecting an aura of defiance and victimhood at celebratory campaign events.
Wearing his signature dark suit and red tie, Trump turned and waved to crowds outside the building before heading inside to be fingerprinted and processed. He arrived at court in an eight-car motorcade from Trump Tower, communicating in real time his anger at the process.
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse,” he posted on his Truth Social platform. “Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
Afterward, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche told reporters that it was a “sad day for the country.”
“You don’t expect this to happen to somebody who was president of the United States,” he said.
New York police said they were ready for large protests by Trump supporters, who share the Republican former president’s belief that the New York grand jury indictment and three additional pending investigations are politically motivated and intended to weaken his bid to retake the White House in 2024. Journalists often outnumbered protesters, though.
Trump, a former reality TV star, has been hyping that narrative to his political advantage, saying he raised more than $8 million in the days since the indictment on claims of a “witch hunt.” His campaign released a fundraising request titled “My last email before arrest” and he has repeatedly assailed Bragg, egged on supporters to protest and claimed without evidence that the judge presiding over the case “hates me” — something his own lawyer has said is not true.