Donald Trump became the first-ever former U.S. president to confront felony charges Tuesday, pleading not guilty in what prosecutors allege was a hush-money scheme designed to protect his reputation prior to the 2016 election.
As modest but vocal factions of protesters and supporters pulsed on the streets of lower Manhattan, Trump entered his plea during an unprecedented court appearance that was surrounded by a steely gauntlet of police and Secret Service agents.
In total, Trump is facing 34 counts of falsifying business records, all of them allegedly “with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof,” the now-unsealed indictment reads.
The part about committing another crime is important, because it’s what elevates what would otherwise be misdemeanors to the level of a felony.
Aside from entering his plea, Trump was otherwise uncharacteristically silent throughout the afternoon, waving to supporters as he entered the courthouse clad in his trademark dark suit and red tie.
That silence was sure to be shattered later Tuesday, with Trump scheduled to make his first public comments since the indictment from inside the gilded country-club sanctuary of Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., in the evening.
Trump’s campaign did issue a statement that described the case as a “farce” and “an unprecedented attack on our justice system,” calling the indictment itself “embarrassing” and “bare bones.”
The charges flow from the Stormy Daniels affair, in which “hush money” payments were made during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of extramarital sexual encounters.
Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg’s investigation has focused on payments that were made to Daniels, an adult film star, as well as to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Another character also emerged Tuesday: a Trump Tower doorman who claimed back in 2015 to have a story about Trump fathering a child born out of wedlock.
“It’s not just about one payment. It is 34 false statements and business records that were concealing criminal conduct,” Bragg said after the hearing.
The payments were part of “an unlawful plan to identify and suppress negative information that could have undermined his campaign for president,” Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy said in court.
All 34 counts against Trump are linked to a series of checks that were written to Trump’s now-estranged lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, who has already been convicted of violating campaign finance laws.
Trump lawyer Todd Blanche called it “a sad day for the country.”
“You don’t expect this to happen to somebody who was president of the United States,” Blanche said.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press.