WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 34 felony counts of falsification of business records, charges stemming from the alleged cover-up of a hush money payment made in the days before the 2016 election.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told reporters in a news conference after Trump’s arraignment that the indictment centers on “34 false statements made to cover up other crimes.”
“These are felony crimes in New York state, no matter who you are. We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct,” he said.
Trump became the first former U.S. president to face criminal charges when he was indicted last week by the Manhattan grand jury after an investigation that initially focused on a $130,000 payment made by his former attorney, Michael D. Cohen, to adult film actor Stormy Daniels. The money was allegedly paid to prevent Daniels from publicly saying she had an affair with Trump during his campaign for president.
A somber-looking Trump ignored a handful of shouted questions as he walked past police before entering the courtroom for the arraignment. He sat with his hands folded before him on the defense table for most of the proceeding, and said little beyond replying “Not guilty” when asked how he pleaded, and “I do” and “Yes” when asked if he understood his rights and the law.
Falsification of business records is normally a misdemeanor under New York law, but the prosecutor elevated it to a felony on the grounds that the conduct was intended to conceal another underlying crime. Bragg told reporters the underlying crimes were violations of New York election law, which makes it a crime to conspire to promote a candidacy by unlawful means, false statements to tax authorities and federal contribution limits.
The former president has been accused of hiding reimbursement and further compensation to Cohen by funneling those payments either through his business’ revocable trust or through his bank account and recording them as legal services. The indictment states that Trump and Cohen “met in the Oval Office at the White House” in February 2017 to confirm the repayment scheme. Several checks were signed by Trump himself while he was president, according to the indictment. Cohen did not perform legal work for Trump while he was in the White House.
Despite the heavy focus on Daniels before the indictment was unsealed, the charges outline a broad effort to conceal damaging information from voters before and after the 2016 election, including a so-called “catch and kill” scheme to identify, purchase and bury negative stories about Trump.
Other payments identified by the prosecution include $30,000 to a former Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about a child Trump fathered out of wedlock and a $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also alleged that she had a sexual relationship with Trump. American Media Inc., which at the time owned the National Enquirer, has admitted in court to paying sources with allegations that could harm Trump politically to ensure the information they provided would never appear in print.
Cohen, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to felonies related to the alleged hush money payments to Daniels and spent three years in prison, is expected to be a key witness if the case goes to trial. His lawyer, Lanny Davis, told CNN on Sunday that Cohen provided Manhattan prosecutors with “substantial documentation” of the payments to Daniels and McDougal to support his testimony.
Trump was processed Tuesday — which included fingerprinting — directly before being arraigned around 2:30 p.m. Eastern time. No other judicial proceedings were allowed in courtrooms on same floor where Trump appeared before Judge Juan Merchan.
While he was being fingerprinted, Trump’s campaign sent an email advertising a “NOT GUILTY” T-shirt with a mocked-up mug shot of the president — he did not have one taken Tuesday — that is free with a $47 contribution.
Trump traveled from Florida to New York on Monday with his Secret Service detail and political and legal teams, including newly hired lead counsel Todd Blanche, a top white-collar criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor. Also with Trump at his Tuesday arraignment were attorneys Susan R. Necheles, Boris Epshteyn and Joseph Tacopina.
On Tuesday morning, a large crowd of journalists, Trump supporters and critics filled the park across the street from the courthouse to watch Trump arrive for processing.
“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 wrote on his Truth Social platform moments before he exited a black SUV and walked into the building accompanied by Secret Service. At 1:24 pm. Eastern he was formally under arrest.
Chants and celebrations, complete with drums and cowbells, from anti-Trump demonstrators erupted nearby following news of Trump’s surrender.
In the middle of the park, Trump critics laid out a banner with the words “Trump Lies All The Time,” in bold, capital letters. Nadine Seiler, 57, stood nearby wearing a “Trump indicted” T-shirt and holding a banner above her head that said, “Finally coming: Trump arrested.”
Seiler said she decided to travel from her home in Waldorf, Maryland, after hearing U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., would be in New York. Seiler said she thinks Greene wants a “second insurrection” and had traveled to New York to incite Trump supporters into action.
“I had no plans to come here. But when she decided she was going to bring her thugs to NYC, I felt obligated to come,” Seiler said.
Dion Cini of Brooklyn held a red “Trump or Death Flag,” emblazoned with the years 1776 and 2024 and an image of Trump’s face. He said the Manhattan district attorney should have used resources to investigate “real crime” happening in his neighborhood. There may be a crime in this indictment, he said, but added there’s currently no line Trump could cross that would make him turn on the former president.
“Like (Trump) said, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and I don’t really care, because what he does for America outweighs, you know, a crime even like that,” Cini said. “He said it, I didn’t, but I support him because he’s the only American president who ever said, ever, since George Washington, America first. No president has ever said that.”
Police in New York City and across the country were concerned that planned protests could turn violent, but aside from minor altercations, demonstrations have so far remained calm.
The former president has said he plans to return to Florida after the arraignment and is expected to give a speech at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach on Tuesday evening.
Trump has a history of leveling unfounded criticism of judges and district attorneys when he’s in legal trouble. On Truth Social, he has called Bragg, who is Black, an “animal” and “racist,” and has also attacked Merchan, who oversaw a separate case involving the Trump Organization. Merchan cited the criticism of the prosecutor during the arraignment and asked Trump to refrain from social media posts that could incite violence or civil unrest, and not to use words that could jeopardize the rule of law.
“This is a request I’m making, I’m not making an order,” the judge said.
It’s unclear whether Trump’s legal team will be able to persuade him to avoid such rhetoric during when he speaks at Mar-a-Lago. On Monday evening, Trump unleashed another tirade against Bragg on Truth Social, accusing him of leaking information from the indictment, which had not yet been unsealed.
“This means that he MUST BE IMMEDIATELY INDICTED. Now, if he wants to really clean up his reputation, he will do the honorable thing and, as District Attorney, INDICT HIMSELF,” Trump wrote.
Last month, Trump warned of “potential death and destruction” if he was indicted, and law enforcement agencies are on high alert in New York and around the country. President Joe Biden told reporters Monday that he was confident police could handle any unrest.
Trump has announced a campaign for president in 2024, and his Republican allies have sought to portray Bragg’s investigation as a politically motivated effort to interfere in the election. The probe was initiated in 2018, but was repeatedly placed on the back burner by other prosecutors.
The former president is also facing separate federal investigations into his alleged involvement in 2020 election interference by his supporters and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, along with his handling of classified documents after leaving office. Special counsel Jack Smith, who was appointed in November by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, has convened grand juries to hear from witnesses in both of the federal investigations, including most recently members of Trump’s Secret Service detail.
Trump also faces possible state-level election interference charges in Georgia. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is weighing potential indictments related to Trump’s attempts to change Georgia voting results after the 2020 election.
(Wire reported from Washington and Petri reported from New York. Times staff writer Arit John in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)