Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records connected to a hush money payment made to a porn star, as the former president’s appearance triggered a national spectacle outside a Manhattan courthouse.
The 76-year-old politician appeared for an hourlong arraignment on the state charges and sat at a table flanked by his defense lawyers, a historic moment captured by several photographers the judge allowed into the courtroom.
Prosecutors released for the first time the indictment and statement of facts that outlined payments made during the 2016 presidential election campaign to two women who alleged they had extramarital sexual encounters with him.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said at a press conference after the court hearing that the charges stem from a “catch and kill” scheme to stymie negative stories about Trump.
Bragg said Trump reimbursed attorney Michael Cohen for a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels and falsified business records to cover up the payment. That violated New York and federal election law, which led to the charges, he said.
“That payment was to hide damaging information from the voting public,” Bragg said.
Bragg defended his office’s investigation in response to questions from reporters, and he said the state business record falsification law does not require that a defendant be charged with the underlying crime they were trying to cover up, in this case the election law violations.
Bragg said that his office, at the financial center of the world, pays careful attention to the falsification of business records, and “everyone stands equal before the law, no amount of money and no matter power, changes that enduring American principle.”
“At its core, this case today is one with allegations, like so many of our white-collar cases, allegations that someone lied again and again to protect their interests and evade the laws, to which we are all held accountable,” Bragg said.
Trump attorney Joe Tacopina, at a press conference after the court hearing, argued the case was unprecedented in the history of the DA’s office. He pointed out that federal prosecutors examined the case and did not charge Trump.
“A state prosecutor is prosecuting a federal election law violation that doesn’t exist according to federal election officials. It’s as simple as that that,” Tacopina told reporters.
Trump said “not guilty” in a firm voice while facing a judge who warned him to refrain from rhetoric that could inflame or cause civil unrest, according to an Associated Press account of the hearing.
Trump posted multiple times on Truth Social ahead of the hearing in all caps, including a post that called the judge and his family “HIGHLY PARTISAN” and well-known “TRUMP HATERS.”
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!” Trump posted Tuesday morning.
Donald Trump Jr. also posted on the same site a photograph and story on breitbart.com about the daughter of the judge overseeing his father’s case, and how she had worked for Vice President Kamala Harris.
Trump’s reelection campaign started fundraising off of the arraignment before it began, sending out an email to supporters advertising a mugshot-themed T-shirt.
Trump departed New York and announced he would speak Tuesday evening from his private Florida club, Mar-a-Lago.
The court appearance revived another round of criticism from Republican lawmakers who say the investigation is unfair and politically motivated. Bragg’s office has dismissed those claims of political motivation as “unfounded allegations.”
Texas Republican Rep. Ronny Jackson issued a statement that hurled insults at Bragg, calling him a “spineless weasel” who was “making up the law as he goes.”
“Hope he enjoys his fifteen minutes of fame, because Congress will be coming after him when this is done!” Jackson said.
Tennessee Republican Rep. Diana Harshbarger called for all federal funding to be pulled from Bragg’s office. “DA Alvin Bragg’s political witch hunt is a blatant assault on our democracy,” she tweeted.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California tweeted Tuesday that Bragg “is attempting to interfere in our democratic process by invoking federal law to bring politicized charges against President Trump, admittedly using federal funds, while at the same time arguing that the peoples’ representatives in Congress lack jurisdiction to investigate this farce.”
“Not so,” McCarthy said. “Bragg’s weaponization of the federal justice process will be held accountable by Congress.”
The statement of facts gave more details on the scheme but did not give a lengthy explanation of evidence, or shed light on what new evidence Bragg says he has.
Daniels received the $130,000 from Cohen via a shell company less than two weeks before the 2016 general election, prosecutors said in court documents.
Trump’s company reimbursed Cohen for the money and accounted for the payments as legal expenses, according to court documents.
Trump directed Cohen to delay making the payment as long as possible, according to prosecutors.
They could avoid paying altogether if they held out until after the election “because at that point it would not matter if the story became public,” the prosecution wrote in a court document.
A second woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, agreed to sell her Trump story for $150,000 to the company that published the tabloid National Enquirer, according to a past nondisclosure agreement.
But the company did not intend to publish her story, according to the past nonprosecution agreement, and instead bought the rights to her story so it could suppress it.