Donald Trump, the first former US president to be indicted, pleaded not guilty to 34 criminal counts in the Manhattan district attorney’s case against him, amid an intense national debate over the prosecution.
Trump, who is making a comeback bid for the White House, was arraigned Tuesday afternoon following his March 30 indictment by a New York state grand jury. The city’s police department, the US Secret Service and other authorities remain on high alert given the political firestorm over the case.
The former president would plead not guilty “very loudly and proudly,” his lawyer Joe Tacopina promised Sunday on CNN.
The indictment stems from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s probe of hush money payments made just before the 2016 election to cover up an alleged decade-old affair. Trump’s then lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, now a fierce critic, has testified that his boss covertly reimbursed him for the payments.
Falsifying business records can be a misdemeanor under New York law. For prosecutors to prove Trump committed a felony, they would have to show it was part of an effort to commit or conceal a second crime.
Trump denies the affair and any illegal acts.
Trump, 76, must now grapple with the criminal case even as he pursues the Republican nomination in the 2024 race. It comes as he faces a separate probe of his bid to overturn the 2020 election result in Georgia, as well as a federal special counsel’s inquiry into those efforts and his handling of government documents. Either or both of those investigations could result in criminal charges on top of Bragg’s.
Trump also faces civil lawsuits by New York’s attorney general, who accused him of manipulating property valuations, and a writer who alleges he raped her, which he denies.
He says the indictment and the pending probes and suits are baseless and part of a partisan effort to take him down. Bragg, Georgia prosecutor Fani Willis and New York AG Letitia James are Democrats. Special Counsel Jack Smith is registered as a political independent.
The New York prosecution alone has sparked an intense national debate and a showdown between Republican and Democratic leaders, including one between Bragg and House Republicans seeking his testimony about the probe. As local authorities prepared for the arraignment, the New York Young Republican Club promoted what it called a peaceful rally for Trump across from the courthouse on Tuesday morning. It featured US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a champion of Trump’s efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
The 45th president flew to New York from Florida on Monday and proceeded by motorcade to Trump Tower to prepare for his court appearance. Also on Monday, Tacopina confirmed that his client had added former federal prosecutor Todd Blanche to his defense team. Bragg announced a press conference to follow the arraignment.
On Tuesday Trump surrendered himself for booking and, at about 2:30 p.m., walked into the courtroom for his arraignment before New York State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan. Merchan presided over the state’s case against Allen Weisselberg, the former Trump Organization chief financial officer who pleaded guilty to tax fraud in August. Weisselberg went on to testify against two Trump Organization units convicted of tax fraud in December, also under Merchan.
Those cases, both brought by the Manhattan DA’s office, have some overlap with the current prosecution. If Weisselberg testified against his old boss, it would be a coup for Bragg.
Hush Money’s History
The hush money was previously investigated by Manhattan federal prosecutors who gave Weisselberg limited immunity. He testified before a federal grand jury probing the payments in 2018. That case resulted in a guilty plea and a three-year prison sentence for Cohen, who testified twice before Bragg’s grand jury and is expected to be a key prosecution witness in the current case.
Federal prosecutors decided against charging Trump over the payments, in part because the Justice Department has a decades-old policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
In the closing days of the 2016 campaign, Trump spoke several times by phone with Cohen, who said Trump directed the payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and then reimbursed him for them. Documents later unsealed in the federal case show a flurry of calls and text messages that October involving Cohen, campaign press secretary Hope Hicks and top aide Kellyanne Conway, scrambling to prevent Daniels from going public with her claims.
Hicks and Conway are among a gaggle of prominent potential witnesses, including Trump Organization Controller Jeffrey McConney, who have flowed in and out of Bragg’s offices since the grand jury was convened in January.
Former Playboy model Karen McDougal also figured in Bragg’s probe. Lanny Davis, a lawyer for Cohen, said Sunday on CNN that his client and former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker both provided the Manhattan grand jury with evidence about hush money payments made to McDougal before the 2016 election. Pecker testified twice before the grand jury and was spotted leaving the courthouse last week.