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NEW YORK — Prosecutors in Manhattan say former president Donald Trump orchestrated a sweeping scheme to bury damaging allegations about extramarital affairs — which had been set to emerge before the 2016 presidential election — and then tried to cover it up by falsifying company records.
“During and in furtherance of his candidacy for President, the Defendant and others agreed to identify and suppress negative stories about him,” according to charging documents unveiled Tuesday by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
Trump pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 34 felony charges connected to his role in the alleged scheme, a plea that came at the conclusion of an extraordinary trip to the courthouse for the former president. Trump, the first former president ever indicted, delivered his plea in a Manhattan courtroom a few hours after turning himself in to authorities.
All 34 counts he faces are for “falsifying business records,” a crime that carries a sentence of up to four years in prison when charged as a felony. Judges often sentence first-time offenders to probation, particularly in non-violent cases. But Bragg said the case was an important one, meant to punish Trump’s effort to conceal alleged crimes.
“We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct,” he said at a press conference after the indictment was unsealed, emphasizing that the specific crime with which Trump was charged is “the bread and butter of our white-collar work.”
The charging documents suggest that prosecutors are relying on witness testimony, business records and a recorded conversation in September 2016 between Trump and his then-attorney Michael Cohen. After the election, prosecutors say, Trump and Cohen concocted a plan to reimburse Cohen for making one of the hush money payments on Trump’s behalf. They tried to mask the reimbursement by mixing it with other payments to Cohen that he could categorize as income rather than a repayment, according to prosecutors.
The unveiling of the charges will trigger a frenzied legal battle by Trump and his team to derail the case, which will unfold as he mounts a renewed bid for the White House in 2024. Prosecutors suggested a trial date of January 2024, but Trump’s attorney said that timeframe might be too ambitious, with a spring 2024 trial date more reasonable.
Trump declined to answer questions before stepping into the courtroom, striding stone-faced through the crowded courthouse hallways, flanked by a significant NYPD and Secret Service contingent. He sat at a table in the courtroom alongside attorneys Todd Blanche, Susan Necheles, Joe Tacopina and Boris Epshteyn.
Bragg sat in the first row of the gallery, flanked by staffers.
Trump entered the not guilty plea himself and remained solemn, looking straight ahead throughout the proceedings. As he exited, he had a scowl on his face and glanced side to side at the reporters occupying the courtroom rows.
Though Trump said little during the arraignment, his prior statements became a point of contention in court after prosecutors voiced concern about what they described as the inflammatory nature of some of his remarks in the weeks preceding the indictment — specifically when he called Bragg an “animal” and posted a picture of himself holding a baseball bat alongside an image of the district attorney.
Blanche, a prominent New York white-collar attorney who recently joined Trump's legal team, argued that his client was simply defending himself after experiencing a “grave injustice,” drawing an approving glance from Trump.
But the judge, Juan Merchan, sided with prosecutors, warning Trump’s lawyers to remind the former president not to make statements that “incite violence or create civil unrest.” The judge didn’t set a trial date.
Although it’s the first time a former president has ever faced criminal charges, it may not be the last: At least three other criminal probes are circling around Trump. In Fulton County, Georgia, a district attorney is investigating Trump’s attempt to subvert that state’s results in the 2020 election, and in Washington D.C., a special counsel is investigating his role in attempting to derail the transfer of presidential power, as well as his handling of national security secrets after leaving office.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy outlined the case against Trump during Tuesday’s proceedings, describing the alleged hush money scheme as an “unlawful plan to identify and suppress negative information” during the 2016 presidential election.
Conroy did not seek a gag order, despite preemptive complaints by some of Trump’s allies, and Merchan emphasized that he would not impose one at this time.
Trump has railed against the hush money case and has called Bragg politically motivated. And he’s worked to turn the indictment into rocket fuel for his campaign and its coffers. His attorneys echoed his allegations about the charges after the arraignment.
“It's not a happy day. It’s a sad day for this country,” Blanche told reporters outside the courthouse. “The district attorney has turned what is actually a completely political issue into a political prosecution.”
Later on Tuesday, Tacopina criticized the indictment during an interview on Fox News.
"What really wasn't expected is that they were going to hand down an indictment without specifying what these alleged underlying crimes were," he said, referring to the crimes that prosecutors say Trump was attempting to cover up with the allegedly false business records.
"It's shocking to me that a state prosecutor would try and prosecute something as thin as this," he said.
The charges emerged from a broad investigation Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., opened several years ago relating to Cohen's admission that he arranged hush money payments at the height of the 2016 campaign to two women claiming past sexual liaisons with Trump: porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
After initially denying any wrongdoing, Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to two federal campaign-finance charges, admitting that the unreported payments were effectively donations to Trump’s campaign because they were intended to aid his candidacy. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison on those charges, as well as tax and fraud offenses. Cohen said Trump directed him to pay the hush money and then, while he was president, reimbursed him through the Trump Organization in a series of payments that were falsely recorded as legal expenses.
No federal charges were ever filed against Trump, although Justice Department policy barring charges against a sitting president ruled out such a possibility until he left office in January 2021.
Vance’s initial investigation into Trump’s role in the hush money scheme seemed to peter out in favor of a higher-profile examination, also originating from claims made by Cohen, of pervasive tax and insurance fraud in Trump’s business empire. That investigation yielded a 2021 conviction of the Trump Organization and a guilty plea from its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, who is currently serving a five-month prison sentence.
After Bragg took office in early 2022, top prosecutors on the tax-fraud probe resigned, complaining that Bragg had balked at charging Trump himself in the probe. But the district attorney’s office eventually intensified its interest in the long-dormant hush money inquiry.
The two federal special counsel investigations and the Georgia probe had appeared to eclipse the New York case as the likeliest to result in charges against Trump until, within the last few weeks, signals emerged that charges were imminent from Bragg’s inquiry.
Just what rekindled prosecutors’ interest in that matter remains unclear. Trump and his allies have said the move was a response to political pressure on Bragg that resulted from his decision on the wider-ranging case and the subsequent resignation of the highly-respected lead prosecutor on that matter, Mark Pomerantz.
Trump’s attacks draw from a familiar playbook, leaning on powerful allies in Congress, friendly voices in conservative media and a social media megaphone to try to wrest control of the national dialogue. He has argued that the hush money case was kept alive only by a Covid-extended statute of limitations even though prosecutors — and even Bragg himself — long seemed wary of bringing an indictment.
The case prosecutors presented on Tuesday suggests that Trump’s alleged scheme began in 2015, as his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination began to surge. It started with an effort by Trump to suppress the National Enquirer’s publication of a former Trump Tower doorman’s claim about a child Trump purportedly had out of wedlock. In June 2016, the head of the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., contacted Cohen to reveal that a woman had come forward alleging an extramarital affair with Trump.
Outside the district attorney’s office on Tuesday, police had shut down streets leading to the primary entrance while helicopters buzzed overhead. Across the street from the courthouse, competing factions of anti- and pro-Trump protesters, featuring appearances by Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and George Santos (R-N.Y.), set up camp in a park, near where throngs of reporters and curious onlookers had slept overnight on the street to compete to gain access to Tuesday afternoon’s arraignment.
Trump, who lives in Florida, flew to Manhattan on Monday and stayed overnight in his Trump Tower penthouse before a motorcade, followed overhead by news helicopters, ferried him downtown Tuesday afternoon to face the charges.
Wesley Parnell, Kierra Frazier, Danielle Muoio Dunn and Kelly Garrity contributed to this report.