Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a Manhattan court room to criminal charges in connection with a hush money payment scheme.
The unprecedented indictment, the first against a former or sitting U.S. president, charges that Trump allegedly falsified documents to cover up a $130,000 payment made to former porn star Stormy Daniels, with whom the Floridian and Queens native allegedly had an extramarital affair.
Hundreds of Trump supporters and detractors protested around Manhattan Tuesday both against and in favor of, respectively, Trump’s criminal prosecution. They cheered or jeered the ex-president as his motorcade passed by Trump Tower and near the New York County Criminal Courthouse.
Despite security concerns in the days leading up to the former president’s surrender, the demonstrations turned out to be predominantly peaceful.
Trump surrendered on April 4 to 34 counts of falsifying business records. He was fingerprinted and processed like any other arrested offender, then brought to a courtroom for the arraignment hearing, which went about an hour.
After pleading not guilty before Judge Juan Merchan and being released after the hearing, Trump was free to go — swiftly leaving the courthouse and heading to LaGuardia Airport, where Trump boarded his private jet and flew back home to Palm Beach.
During the arraignment, Judge Merchan warned Trump to refrain from rhetoric that could inflame or cause civil unrest. The judge said he was not imposing a gag order at this point.
Trump, who was impeached twice by the U.S. House but was never convicted in the U.S. Senate, is the first former president to face criminal charges.
According to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Trump allegedly executed a “catch-and-kill” scheme with associates between August 2015 and December 2017, before and during his presidency, in an effort to squash any negative information about him.
That included, the indictment alleges, paying off Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal hundreds of thousands of dollars through Trump’s then special counsel, Michael Cohen, in conjunction with American Media Inc., the former publisher of the National Enquirer.
The $130,000 payment to Daniels occurred just 12 days before the presidential election in 2016, the indictment noted.
“The People of the State of New York allege that Donald J. Trump repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal crimes that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election,” said DA Bragg in a statement. “Manhattan is home to the country’s most significant business market. We cannot allow New York businesses to manipulate their records to cover up criminal conduct.”
After winning the presidential race, prosecutors said, Trump allegedly reimbursed Cohen through 11 checks issued from both the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, formed to hold his organization’s assets during his presidency, and Trump’s own bank account. Nine of the 11 checks issued were signed by the former president himself, and processed by the Trump Organization under the guise of payment for legal services rendered.
Some 34 false entries were made in business records presented to New York state in order to cover up the $130,000 payment, prosecutors noted.
Tuesday marked the culmination of a nearly three-week circus that began on March 18, when Trump took to the “Truth” social media platform to claim that he was about to be indicted and arrested in connection with the hush money scheme. He claimed the arrest would happen the following Tuesday, March 21, but that never materalized.
Yet Trump’s claim set in motion a frenzy of fury from the former president’s loyal supporters, who decried the investigation as political; and concern in New York City, considering that the former president called upon his followers to “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” upon his arrest, using language similar to that which he used ahead of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The city rapidly braced itself for protests ahead of March 21. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg became the center of Trump’s fury, as the former president raged against the prosecutor, calling him, at one point, a “Soros-backed animal,” alleging ties to European billionaire (and bogeyman of the right-wing) George Soros. Bragg wound up receiving numerous threats against him, and a security detail as he shuttled to and from work every day.
Trump is due back in court in December. Trump’s lawyers asked for him to be excused from attending the hearing in person because of extraordinary security precautions.
Updated at 4:10 p.m. on April 4.