Former US President Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. The charges stem from a hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels during Trump's 2016 campaign.
He entered the plea Tuesday during a brief arraignment in a lower Manhattan courtroom as prosecutors unsealed a grand jury indictment.
Judge Juan Merchan warned Trump to refrain from rhetoric that could inflame or cause civil unrest.
Trump, speaking briefly during his arraignment, told the judge he was pleading “not guilty” and was advised of his rights by the judge.
The judge also warned Trump that he could be removed from the courtroom if he is disruptive, but Trump spoke only a few times to respond to questions.
He’s next due in court in December, but his lawyers asked for him to be excused from attending the hearing in person because of extraordinary security proceedings.
A stone-faced Trump entered the courtroom at 2:30 pm, about 70 minutes after he arrived at the Manhattan courthouse to surrender and be booked ahead of the hearing.
Trump did not acknowledge a television camera sending live images from the hallway outside the courtroom.
Judge Merchan had barred TV cameras from the courtroom.
Trump himself described the experience as “SURREAL” as he travelled from Trump Tower to a lower Manhattan courtroom, where he was to face a judge as the first former president in American history to be criminally prosecuted.
The arraignment amounts to a remarkable reckoning for Trump after years of investigations into his personal, business and political dealings. The case is unfolding against the backdrop not only of his third campaign for the White House but also against other investigations in Washington and Atlanta that might yet produce even more charges.
The case is unfolding against the backdrop not only of his third campaign for the White House but also against other investigations in Washington and Atlanta that might yet produce even more charges.
It represents the new split-screen reality for Trump as he submits to the dour demands of the American criminal justice system while projecting an aura of defiance and victimhood at celebratory campaign events.
Wearing his signature dark suit and red tie, Trump turned and waved to crowds outside the building before heading inside to be fingerprinted and processed. He arrived at court in an eight-car motorcade from Trump Tower, communicating in real-time his anger at the process.
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse," the voluble ex-president posted on his Truth Social platform. "Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
Twice impeached but never convicted
Trump, who was impeached twice by the US House but was never convicted in the US Senate, is the first former president to face criminal charges. The nation's 45th commander-in-chief was escorted from Trump Tower to the courthouse by the Secret Service and may have his mug shot taken.
“He is strong and ready to go,” Trump lawyer Joe Tacopina told The Associated Press. Earlier, Tacopina said in a TV interview that the former president wouldn't plead guilty to lesser charges, even if it might resolve the case. He also said he didn't think the case would make it to a jury.
New York police said they were ready for large protests by Trump supporters, who share the Republican former president’s belief that the New York grand jury indictment and three additional pending investigations are politically motivated and intended to weaken his bid to retake the White House in 2024. Journalists often outnumbered protesters, though.
Trump, a former reality TV star, has been hyping that narrative to his political advantage, saying he raised more than $8 million in the days since the indictment on claims of a “witch hunt.” His campaign released a fundraising request titled “My last email before arrest” and he has repeatedly assailed the Manhattan district attorney, egged on supporters to protest and claimed without evidence that the judge presiding over the case “hates me” — something his own lawyer has said is not true.
Trump is scheduled to return to his Palm Beach, Florida, home, Mar-a-Lago, on Tuesday evening to give remarks. At least 500 prominent supporters have been invited, with some of the most pro-Trump congressional Republicans expected to attend.
A conviction would not prevent Trump from running for or winning the presidency in 2024.
Multiple charges of falsifying business records
The investigation is scrutinizing six-figure payments made to porn actor Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both say they had sexual encounters with the married Trump years before he got into politics. Trump denies having sexual liaisons with either woman and has denied any wrongdoing involving payments.
The arraignment unfolded against the backdrop of heavy security in New York, coming more than two years after Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in a failed bid to halt the congressional certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s win.
Trump was defiant ahead of his arraignment. He used his social media network to complain that he was going to court in a heavily Democratic area, declaring, “KANGAROO COURT” and “THIS IS NOT WHAT AMERICA WAS SUPPOSED TO BE!” He and his campaign have repeatedly assailed Bragg and even trained scrutiny on members of Bragg's family.
Media, supporters and opponents wait to see Trump
Despite that, the scenes around Trump Tower and the courthouse did not feature major unrest. Police tried to keep apart protesters supporting the former president and those opposing him by confining them to separate sides of a park near the courthouse using metal barricades.
Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of Trump’s staunchest supporters in Congress, staged a brief rally at the park, but the scene was so chaotic that it was hard to hear her over the crush of reporters and protesters.
“We’re the party of peace,” Greene said, thanking those Trump supporters present. “Democrats are communists.”
Embattled Republican New York Rep. George Santos also showed up in solidarity with Trump, saying, “I want to support the president."
“I think this is unprecedented and it’s a bad day for democracy,” Santos said, suggesting that future prosecutors could target Biden and other presidents with other cases, which “cheapens the judicial system.”
New York’s ability to carry out safe and drama-free courthouse proceedings in a case involving a polarizing ex-president could be an important test case as prosecutors in Atlanta and Washington conduct their own investigations of Trump that could also result in charges. Those investigations concern efforts to undo the 2020 election results as well as the possible mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.