Former U.S. President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a New York state court to a 34-count indictment accusing him of falsifying business records linked to a 2016 hush money payment to a porn actor in the first-ever criminal case against a current or former U.S. leader.
Trump entered his not guilty plea at his arraignment on the allegations before New York State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan after the jurist unveiled the indictment.
There was no live television broadcast of the proceeding after Merchan rejected requests from media outlets to air it. But the justice allowed a small group of photographers to take still pictures before the proceeding began.
The former president, wearing his customary blue suit and red tie, appeared somber, intent and contemplative in one photo taken moments after he took his seat amidst his defense attorneys at the defendant’s table.
His defense lawyers Todd Blanche, Susan Necheles and Joe Tacopina sat on either side of him, as armed courtroom security guards stood behind Trump.
Prosecutors in the case allege that a $130,000 hush money payment was made to adult film actor Stormy Daniels just ahead of Trump’s successful 2016 run for the presidency to silence her about her claim of an alleged tryst with him a decade earlier.
Trump has long denied the claim of Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, of a one-night encounter with her, But Trump has not denied that his one-time lawyer and political fixer, Michael Cohen, made the payment to Daniels and that reimbursement payments to Cohen were recorded on a Trump Organization business ledger as legal expenses. Trump disputes the payment was related to his presidential campaign seven years ago.
The indictment alleged an “illegal conspiracy,” but Trump, with his not guilty plea, was denying that the business records were falsified.
The outcome of any trial could hinge on the intent behind the payment to Daniels. Cohen pleaded guilty to several offenses linked to the transactions and served more than a year in prison.
Tacopina on Sunday told CNN the payment to Daniels was a “personal expenditure, not a campaign expenditure” designed to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. The Wall Street Journal first reported the hush money, but not until early 2018, more than a year after the election.
The 76-year-old Trump oversaw his real estate business empire and was a fixture in the city’s glitzy, tabloid social world for decades before becoming president. But on Tuesday, for the first time, he was appearing in his home city as a defendant, even as early national polls show him leading the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination as he tries to reclaim the White House.
Shortly before the arraignment, Trump was booked and fingerprinted like any criminal defendant. But authorities say in deference to his standing as a former president, he was not handcuffed nor paraded before photographers in a so-called “perp walk.” It was not immediately known whether a mug shot was taken.
Dozens of police assembled at the courthouse and at Trump Tower six kilometers away, where Trump spent Monday night at his residence and had last-minute strategy talks with his lawyers. Trump’s Secret Service detail mapped out his passage into the courthouse and his walk to Merchan’s courtroom.
Large crowds gathered to watch Trump leave Trump Tower and again when he left the courthouse after the arraignment.
The White House ahead of time declined to discuss security arrangements but said the government is “always prepared” for whatever might unfold if protests erupt for or against Trump and District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor in the case. Before the court hearing, pro-Trump demonstrators scuffled with some of his detractors in a park across the street from the courthouse.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams had warned that “rabble rousers” coming to the city to protest had better behave.
“Our message is clear and simple: Control yourselves. New York City is our home, not a playground for your misplaced anger,” he said.
Barricades were erected to restrict traffic near the courthouse, but Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Trump ally, and the New York Young Republican Club staged what they called a “peaceful protest” against Bragg across the street from the courthouse.
Trump has criticized Bragg on social media for what he says is a political “witch hunt” against him and called the Black prosecutor an “animal” and a “racist.” Trump has contended the judge “hates me” after Merchan, in a separate case earlier this year, fined subsidiaries of the Trump Organization $1.6 million in a tax fraud scheme.
After the proceeding, Trump headed to New York’s LaGuardia airport for a flight back to Florida, where he plans to deliver remarks Tuesday night from his Mar-a-Lago estate and gather with his supporters.
Since his indictment last Thursday, Trump’s campaign said it has raised $8 million and logged more than 16,000 volunteer sign-ups, which campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said were “key indicators that Americans from all backgrounds are sick and tired of the weaponization of the justice system against President Trump and his supporters.”
The former president is also facing other criminal investigations that could result in more charges against him, or possibly exonerate him of wrongdoing. They include federal probes of his efforts to upend his 2020 reelection loss to Biden, including Trump’s role in encouraging supporters to try to block Congress from certifying Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021, and his retention of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. He was required to turn over the material to the National Archives when he left office.
Meanwhile, in a narrower case, a prosecutor in the southern state of Georgia is probing Trump’s efforts there to reverse Biden’s win when Trump asked state election officials to “find” him enough votes to claim victory.