Donald Trump, who just over two years ago sat atop the United States executive branch as the 45th president, has been formally charged with 34 felonies relating to falsifying business records around hush money payments during the 2016 presidential campaign.
He pleaded not guilty to all the charges during an appearance in the Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday.
Mr Trump raised a fist in defiance as he arrived at the courthouse amid a heavy security presence from the NYPD and Secret Service after rival sets of protesters had earlier clashed outside court.
However once inside the courtroom, Mr Trump cut a deflated figure as he appeared before New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan for a formal arraignment.
The ex-president surrendered to the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg upon arrival at the court at 1.24pm. He was arrested and fingerprinted in a room on the 7th floor of the courthouse building.
He avoided the ignominy of being handcuffed and paraded before cameras, or having his mugshot taken.
Mr Trump was then taken to a courtroom on the 15th floor of the Manhattan Criminal Court. Photographers allowed into court by Judge Merchan snapped images of the forlorn-looking former president, flanked by members of his defence legal team including Boris Epshteyn.
Mr Trump left the courthouse just before 3.30pm without speaking to reporters and began his journey back to Mar-a-Lago, where he promised to make a statement on Tuesday evening.
The indictment, unsealed on Tuesday, revealed that Mr Trump faces 34 first degree felony charges relating to so-called “catch and kill” operations during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Mr Trump, his former attorney Michael Cohen and the former owner of the National Enquirer David Pecker allegedly worked in cahoots to“identify, purchase, and bury negative information about him and boost his electoral prospects”.
The indictment cites three such examples. Prosecutors say that Mr Pecker caught wind that a former Trump Tower doorman was trying to sell a story about a secret child born to Mr Trump out of wedlock. The doorman was paid $30,000 by American Media Inc (AMI), the parent company of the National Enquirer, and the story, which turned out to be false, was never published.
In a separate instance, AMI paid $150,000 to a woman who has previously been identified as former Playboy model Karen McDougal for the exclusive rights to her story about an affair she had with Mr Trump more than a decade earlier. The article was never published.
The indictment states that similar “catch and kill” tactics were used to bury a story shortly before the election about Mr Trump’s affair with the adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
Ms Daniels was paid $130,000 by Mr Cohen 12 days before the 2016 presidential election, according to the indictment. Prosecutors say that Mr Trump falsified business records to conceal breaches of state and federal campaign finance laws.
“We cannot allow New York businesses to manipulate their records to cover up criminal conduct,” District Attorney Bragg said in a statement.
Violent clashes outside court
Outside court, violent clashes erupted between rival sets of protesters who gathered from first light on Tuesday morning.
Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos, two of Mr Trump’s loudest supporters in Congress, turned up outside court to rile up the small group of MAGA protesters.
Mr Santos quickly departed after being mobbed by the media. Ms Greene’s attempts to address the crowd were drowned out, reportedly after a Trump supporter handed out whistles to overshadow counter protesters.
Mr Trump left Trump Tower just after 1pm and travelled the four-mile journey to the courthouse in lower Manhattan in a convoy of six black SUVs with a police escort.
Moments before he emerged from a Secret Service-driven vehicle, the 76-year-old posted on Truth Social: “Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME.
“Can’t believe this is happening in America.”
Every moment of Mr Trump’s highly-choreographed journey from his private club at Mar-a-Lago to the Manhattan court has been closely followed and broadcast in rolling cable news coverage.
How the arraignment unfolded
Mr Trump, who is used to saying whatever he wants to say to whomever he wants to say it to, was only permitted two possible responses to the 34 felony charges: Guilty or not guilty.
He chose to enter a single not guilty plea to each of the counts on his indictment.
The ex-president was then warned by Judge Merchan to stop making threatening posts on social media that could incite violence or inflame social unrest.
The judge refrained from imposing a gag order in Mr Trump.
Prosecutors sought a trial date for January 2024, which Mr Trump’s attorneys objected to as too soon. They asked for a trial date in the spring of 2024, according to the New York Times.
Under New York law, he will not have to post any bail because he is charged with non-violent crimes, and he is set to return to his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, where he has signalled he will deliver remarks on Tuesday evening.
‘We’re going to fight it’
Outside the courthouse, Mr Trump’s lead defence attorney Todd Blanche told reporters that Mr Trump was “frustrated” and “upset” about the charges.
“But he’s motivated and it’s not going to stop him,” Mr Blanche told reporters.
“We’re going to fight it, and we’re going to fight it hard.”
Mr Blanche accused prosecutors of going after Mr Trump for political purposes.
He claimed that the 16-page indictment showed no evidence that any federal or state crimes had been broken.
Mr Trump reportedly hired Mr Blanche as his new lead attorney just hours before the arraignment.
Mr Blanche told Politico he had resigned as a partner from Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, to serve as Mr Trump’s lead counsel.
Mr Trump has repeatedly lashed out at both Judge Merchan — who also presided over the criminal tax fraud of two Trump Organization subsidiaries and the criminal fraud case against the company’s longtime CFO — and the judge’s family in the days since it became known that he’d been indicted, continuing a long pattern of attacking jurists who’ve been assigned to hear cases he’s been involved in.
In a post made to Truth Social just hours before he was set to appear in court, Mr Trump called the judge “highly partisan” and accused both him and his family of being “known Trump haters” and having been “an unfair disaster” during his handling of the prior cases involving his company and its’ CFO, Allen Weisselberg.
He claimed Judge Merchan’s daughter’s work for Vice President Kamala Harris and the Biden-Harris 2020 campaign showed that the jurist is biased against him. He offered no evidence to support his claims about the judge.
Mr Trump then called for the case to be moved to Staten Island, New York’s only reliable Republican stronghold.
“THIS CASE SHOULD BE MOVED TO NEARBY STATEN ISLAND - WOULD BE A VERY FAIR AND SECURE LOCATION FOR THE TRIAL,” Mr Trump posted on Truth Social just before the hearing.
The former president has milked millions of dollars in donations from supporters since rumours that his indictment was imminent began circulating last month.
On Tuesday, he sent yet another email soliciting money from his supporters.
Arraignment poll boost for Trump
Polls conducted after Mr Trump’s indictment provided a significant boost for him in the Republican primary.
In the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll taken on 30-31 March, Mr Trump dramatically widened his lead over Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a hypothetical Republican primary face-off.
Mr Trump now leads Mr DeSantis 57 per cent to 31 per cent, up from a 47 per cent to 39 per cent margin last month.
However, a separate ABC News/Ipsos taken over the same weekend showed that 45 per cent of Americans agreed that Mr Trump should be charged with making the hush money payments.
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