MANHATTAN (CN) — In his first brush with potentially major consequences for a decadeslong record of alleged business improprieties, Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday to an unprecedented indictment against someone who held executive office.
"Let's arraign Mr. Trump," said New York Supreme Justice Juan Merchan, at the conclusion of media-access issues that had caused a roughly 20-minute delay to the proceedings scheduled for 2:15 p.m.
Trump then spoke his first two words as a criminal defendant. "Not guilty," he said in a gravelly voice. By the time the historic hearing adjourned at 3:25, the twice-impeached former president had uttered just eight words, his longest string being the reply, "OK, I can," when Judge Merchan explained a potential conflict of an interest for one of his lawyers.
Dressed in a blue suit and red tie, Trump sat up straight up and mostly kept his hands clasped together, later changing to a crossed arms pose.
There will not be a gag order on the parties as the case advances, but Judge Merchan did urge Trump sternly on Tuesday to avoid making posts with language that has the potential incite civil unrest or "that jeopardizes the rule of law."
Trump was joined at the defense table on Tuesday by his attorneys Todd Blanche, Susan Necheles and Joe Tacopina.
Since the charges are not eligible for bail under New York state law, Trump was released on his own recognizance and left from the courthouse to LaGuardia Airport in Queens to return to his Mar-A-Lago estate in Palm Beach.
Trump has been actively critical of his prosecution, calling it "election interference at the highest level in history" when news of the indictment broke Thursday.
Unsealed for the first time this afternoon, the 34-count indictment ties Trump explicitly to an otherwise known criminal conspiracy: payments that were made weeks before the 2016 presidential election to porn actress Stormy Daniels and to Playboy playmate Karen McDougal so that neither woman would make public statements about extramarital affairs they claimed to have had with Trump.
Summarizing those charges and statement of facts that accompanies them, prosecutors said Trump committed an "illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of the 2016 presidential election."
At a press conference held immediately after the arraignment, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg broke his long silence about the details of the case, explaining to reporters for the first time how the indictment's 34 felony counts for falsifying business records encompass 34 documents — checks, invoices and general ledger entries — that Trump filed to cover up hush money payments to three people who possessed negative information that could have been damaging to Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Bragg said Trump illegally recorded these reimbursement payments for the hush money as legal fees to his personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen.
"This simply was not true, and it was a false statement made month after month in 2017," Bragg said. "For nine straight months, the defendant held documents in his hand containing this key lie, that he was paying Michael Cohen for legal services – and he personally signed checks to Michael Cohen for each of these nine months."
Because prosecutors allege the records were falsified "with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission," all of the charges are felonies.
Bragg told reporters the other crimes in the case are violations of state and federal election laws.
“As this office has done time and time again, we today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law," Bragg said. "No amount of money and no amount of power changes that enduring principle.”
The District Attorney's Office asked to set a January 2024 trial date, but Merchan left the matter open. A trial that month would be unlikely, however, as court is set to hold its next hearing on Dec. 4 for rulings on all motions.
Trump's attorney Blanche suggested that a trial date later in next spring may be more realistic target.
On social media, Trump has lashed out at Judge Merchan, who also oversaw the recent criminal trial of the Trump Organization.
Though Trump called him a "Trump Hating Judge" who “railroaded” the Trump Org’s longtime finance chief to plead guilty last year, Merchan did not in fact have any involvement in Allen Weisselberg’s August 2022 plea deal, which was negotiated by lawyers for the former Trump CFO and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
Trump's arraignment was held in the same 15th floor courtroom of Manhattan criminal courthouse where both disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein and Trump’s namesake company were convicted in their respective criminal cases in the past three years.
To get inside, more than 100 reporters were lined up outside the courthouse before dawn. Secret Service performed a full floor sweep at the Art Deco building, and a new magnetometer was installed at the entrance of the courtroom as additional security measures for the presentment of the former president.
Ultimately these preparations for a spectacle proved largely anticlimactic.
At 10:30 a.m., U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene emerged outside the courthouse and was promptly swarmed by news cameras, flag-carrying Trump supporters and counter-protesters who tried to drown out the far-right congresswoman with whistles. Mayor Eric Adams had called out Greene by name the previous afternoon, warning her to “be on your best behavior” during the demonstration.
A Brooklyn-based Trump supporter outside the courthouse Tuesday called the prosecution a waste of the city's resources and framed the divide over Trump as a “war between good and evil.”
“He’s the only president who says ‘America First.’ I will stand and I will fight for any leader who says ‘America First,’” Dion Cini told reporters.
Cini complained that paying hush money is “not a crime,” but echoed other fans’ prediction that the case led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg will ultimately raise Trump’s popularity leading up to the 2024 presidential election.
“The outcome is going to be awesome. It’s going to be a 10% boost in the polls,” Cini said. “Thank you Alvin Bragg.”
On the other side of the aisle was Karen Irwin, who has protested Trump since his election, including counter-protesting Make America Great Again marches and the January 6, 2021, attempted insurrection. Tuesday was a celebration, Irwin said, but when the indictment came down it wasn’t all roses.
“It felt like too little too late. And it made me sad,” said Irwin, who lives in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan.
“And then I mustered it and said, you know, we’ve had so few wins lately. Let’s just take this freaking win for a hot second. Let’s get back together — let’s bring the group back together — and enjoy ourselves, because this is the tiniest of steps in us pretending like this is even still a democracy.”
The case against Trump in New York City marks the first time in U.S. history that an indictment has been returned against a current or former U.S. president. Simultaneously, and with 19 months to go before his name would conceivably appear on 2024 presidential election ballots, Trump is also facing a separate grand jury investigation in Fulton County, Georgia, on possible criminal efforts to overturn the state's 2020 ballot count.
Later this month in Manhattan, Trump is due to face a civil trial in a case brought by E. Jean Carroll, a longtime magazine columnist who alleges Trump raped her in a dressing room at the department store Bergdorf Goodman some time in the 1990s.
Trump’s co-lead attorney Tacopina said Trump’s defense team has not decided whether he will waive his in-person appearances at the Carroll trial.
For Tuesday evening, after he flies back from Manhattan, Trump’s 2024 campaign has scheduled a press conference at his Mar-a-Lago club Palm Beach, Florida.
Supporters are expected to join Trump at his South Florida resort as he seeks to project an image of strength and defiance and transmute any damage from the criminal charges into a political asset to boost his third presidential campaign.
A lifelong New Yorker who changed his residence to Florida once his political stature rose, Trump has long denied any wrongdoing and portrays the Manhattan district attorney’s probe as part of a yearslong “witch hunt” aimed at damaging his candidacy.
He frequently uses anti-Semitic language and conspiratorial themes to denounce any criminal charges — themes that are also emerging in his nascent campaign to regain the White House after he lost reelection to President Joe Biden in 2020,
Trump's 2024 campaign and his closest base of fervent Republican supporters likewise portray the Manhattan district attorney a puppet of George Soros, the Jewish philanthropist and Hungarian-American billionaire who funds pro-democracy activism across the globe.
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