Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for his arraignment at Manhattan Criminal Court on April 4, 2023 in New York City. With the indictment, Trump became the first former U.S. president in history to be charged with a criminal offense. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 34 New York state felony offenses related to what prosecutors say were hush money payments to an adult film star.
In a brief but historic appearance in a Manhattan trial court, Trump, the first former president to face criminal prosecution, learned he was charged with falsifying business records 34 times from February to December 2017.
Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, paid Stormy Daniels, a porn actor who said she had a sexual relationship with Trump, $130,000 in exchange for her silence about the supposed relationship during the 2016 presidential race, according to a 16-page indictment and attached statement of facts that were unsealed Tuesday.
Trump then repaid Cohen in 34 payments over the course of 2017, but described them in Trump Organization records as payments for legal services, meant to cover up the payment to Daniels, prosecutors said.
Trump, a Republican candidate for president in 2024, denies having an affair with Daniels.
“These are crimes in New York no matter who you are,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said following the arraignment.
“Everyone stands equal before the law,” he added. “No amount of money and no amount of power changes that enduring American principle.”
Responding to a question asking why Bragg brought charges after his predecessor and federal prosecutors declined to do so, Bragg said his office had new evidence that wasn’t available to the prior district attorney and that New York state, as the “business capital of the world,” had a particular interest in prosecuting business fraud cases.
Trump has accused Bragg of being motivated by politics.
Just before arriving at the arraignment, Trump posted to his social media site, Truth Social.
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse” he wrote. “Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
Trump left the courthouse without commenting.
In a primetime speech from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump barely addressed the New York charges, but offered a general defense that he’d done nothing wrong and was instead the victim of a litany of investigatory incursions from his political opponents.
“The only crime I’ve committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it,” he said near the start of his remarks.
Bragg and Judge Juan Merchan both held grudges against him and would not be fair, he said, attacking the indictment without specifically rejecting its accusations.
“Everybody said, ‘This is not really an indictment. There’s nothing here,’” he said.
At one point Trump seemed to concede he’d lost the 2020 election, implying he needed a mere .1% change in the election results to win. The admission was a change for Trump, whose weeks-long false insistence that he’d won the election led to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
But at another point in Tuesday’s speech, he again claimed Democrats could not defeat him in a fair election, saying the New York charges were a method to stop him.
“They can’t beat us at the ballot box so they try to beat us through the law,” he said. “These radical-left lunatics want to interfere with our elections by using law enforcement. We can’t let that happen.”
Payments covered up campaign crime, DA says
Cohen’s payments to Daniels in 2016 exceeded campaign contribution limits — and because they were meant to boost Trump’s White House bid, should be considered campaign funds, Bragg said. The records of Trump’s payments to Cohen therefore were meant to conceal a crime, making the false business records criminal.
“He could not simply say that the payments were a reimbursement for Mr. Cohen’s payments to Stormy Daniels,” Bragg said. “To do so, to make that true statement, would have been to admit a crime. So instead, Mr. Trump’s said he paid Mr. Cohen for fictitious legal services in 2017 to cover up actual crime committed the prior year.”
The indictment said the false business record was done “with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof.”
The payment to Daniels was part of a pattern Trump’s 2016 campaign employed to suppress stories about alleged Trump affairs, according to prosecutors’ statement of facts.
A longtime confidante of Trump, Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign finance and fraud charges. He also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.
He has said his crimes were in service of Trump’s 2016 campaign and has cooperated with authorities.
House Republicans attack DA
Bragg and U.S. House Republicans have publicly quarreled over the case, with the Republican chairs of the House Judiciary, Oversight & Accountability and Administration committees accusing Bragg of conducting a politically motivated prosecution.
Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan of Ohio and Oversight & Accountability Chair James Comer of Kentucky said in a Tuesday statement that Judge Juan Merchan should not impose an order on Trump not to speak about the case.
“To put any restrictions on the ability of President Trump to discuss his mistreatment at the hands of this politically motivated prosecutor would only further demonstrate the weaponization of the New York justice system,” they said.
“To even contemplate stifling the speech of the former commander in chief and current candidate for President is at odds with everything America stands for.”
Merchan did not issue a gag order Tuesday.
Jordan, Comer and House Administration Chair Bryan Steil of Wisconsin wrote to Bragg last month calling his prosecution politically motivated and demanding documents.
Greene headlines muted protest
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia traveled to New York City for a Tuesday morning rally in support of Trump across the street from the Manhattan Courthouse.
According to videos and photos posted to Twitter, the Georgia Republican spoke for roughly 10 minutes through a bullhorn as supporters and journalists surrounded her, but counter-protesters largely muffled her comments with drums and whistles.
New York Republican Rep. George Santos, who is under several legal and ethical investigations, made a brief appearance in the crowd prior to Greene’s comments, according to news media reports.
Greene wrote on Twitter hours before the rally that protesters were “coming to commit assault that can cause audible damage to everyone’s ears including NYPD.”
She wrote that protesters’ behavior should be considered “disorderly conduct” and that the “@NYCMayor better direct NYPD to lock these people up.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a Monday press conference that Greene should be on her “best behavior” during her visit.
In a “60 Minutes” interview that aired over the weekend, Greene defended her support for Trump and said other Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and former House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — “failed.”
Greene, a well-known 2020 election denier, sits on the House Committee on Oversight & Accountability and the Committee on Homeland Security.
Greene’s rally was presented in conjunction with the New York Young Republicans Club, which released a statement on March 30 that read in part: “President Trump embodies the American people — our psyche from id to super-ego — as does no other figure; his soul is totally bonded with our core values and emotions, and he is our total and indisputable champion. This tremendous connection threatens the established order.”
Apart from Greene’s appearance in New York, major pro-Trump protests appeared limited across the country Tuesday. The U.S. Capitol remained calm.
Iowa governor: It’s a ‘sad day’
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, reiterated her remarks that the indictment was politically motivated.
“It’s a sad day for America, to be really honest, to see this happening,” Reynolds said. “And I just — it feels very political, politically charged. And it’s unfortunate, it really is, because this isn’t what Iowans want our elected leaders focusing on.”
Reynolds, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, said elected leaders should be tackling issues like the recession, fentanyl and international concerns in China and Ukraine instead of focusing on Trump. She said New York specifically should be addressing the “open season for crime” in the state and city instead of taking action against Trump.
“Most people that you would talk to have the feeling right now, with what they witnessed over the last five years, it’s politically motivated to take out a political opponent,” she said.
Democrats call for fair trial
Reaction from other political figures split along party lines, with several Republicans alleging political bias in the criminal process and Democrats saying the case should play out.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on Trump’s indictment.
“I’m just not going to speak to this case. I’m not going to go beyond what the president shared with all of you,” she said during the daily press briefing.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York released a statement following Trump’s surrender.
“I believe that Mr. Trump will have a fair trial that follows the facts and the law,” Schumer said in the statement. “There’s no place in our justice system for any outside influence or intimidation in the legal process. As the trial proceeds, protest is an American right but all protests must be peaceful.”
House Judiciary ranking member Jerrold Nadler of New York said the indictment appeared well-reasoned and urged Republicans not to interfere with the judicial process.
“This matter will play out in the New York criminal justice system, no matter how MAGA Republicans try to obstruct the process,” he said. “In a desperate attempt to protect Mr. Trump, the most extreme House Republicans are already trying to bully the law enforcement officers involved. I do not know how this case will be decided, but I do know that DA Bragg will not be deterred or intimidated by the political stunts Jim Jordan and (U.S. House Speaker) Kevin McCarthy throw at him.”
House GOP leaders defend Trump
Republicans in Congress posted messages on Twitter criticizing the indictment.
House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, a Minnesota Republican, tweeted Tuesday was “a historic low for our nation.”
“The Democrat Party has proven there is nothing they won’t do to hold onto power — even if it means weaponizing our justice system to target a political opponent,” Emmer wrote.
Fourth-ranking House Republican Elise Stefanik of New York posted to Twitter: “I stand with President Trump.”
“Another dark day in our nation’s history. The Far Left will stop at nothing to punish Joe Biden’s number one political opponent Donald Trump,” Stefanik tweeted about a half hour later.
House Deputy Whip Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania blamed the indictment on the “extreme left.”
“The Left’s weaponization of our criminal justice system for their own benefit is truly un-American,” he wrote on Twitter.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn said the “indictment is a gross abuse of power by a Democrat DA to get an outcome that the left has wanted for years.”
Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney began his statement by saying that he believes Trump’s “character and conduct make him unfit for office.”
“Even so, I believe the New York prosecutor has stretched to reach felony criminal charges in order to fit a political agenda,” he continued.
Other Republican members of Congress, however, were not focused solely on Trump.
Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin tweeted photos of a visit to Guymon, saying it was the first stop on his statewide tour.
“We discussed the ongoing drought, inflation, and the existential threat of communist China. Thanks to Mayor Kim Peterson for hosting us!” Mullin wrote.
Georgia Rep. Rich McCormick tweeted a photo of himself shaking hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as part of a congressional delegation to the country.
“I was able to ask questions AND witness firsthand the accountability of equipment and impact that our assistance is having,” McCormick wrote. “I will continue to fight to hold the Biden Administration accountable for doing the right things and for doing things right.”
Nebraska Sen. Pete Ricketts shared photos of a meeting with the Columbus Rotary in the afternoon after congratulating Finland for joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization earlier in the day.
“We heard firsthand about Finland’s highly capable military during my recent official visit. They’ll be a critical asset to the trans-Atlantic Alliance in the face of Russian aggression,” Ricketts wrote.
Other charges possibly looming
As he readies for another White House run, Trump faces other criminal investigations.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol after the congressional committee tasked with probing the causes of the insurrection made a criminal referral to the department.
Federal authorities are also investigating Trump’s handling of classified documents after his presidency. FBI agents retrieved boxes of classified material Trump took from the White House to his South Florida residence when he left office.
And a Georgia grand jury is looking into potential election interference from Trump during his reelection campaign in 2020. Trump was taped shortly after Election Day 2020 asking the Georgia secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn the state’s election results in his favor.
— Robin Opsahl contributed to this report.
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