Donald Trump pleads not guilty to 34 felony charges

Charges related to the alleged falsification of business records in hush-money scheme

Former president Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower for Manhattan criminal court in New York on Tuesday. AP
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Former US president Donald Trump on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up the illegal payment of hush money his lawyer made to an adult film star in 2016.

Mr Trump entered the plea after being placed under arrest at a federal courthouse in Manhattan, the culminating moment in a historic day that marked the first time a US president has ever been charged with a crime.

The former president, who is the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, has said the prosecution is politically motivated.

Following his arraignment, he immediately returned to his home in Florida and hit back at prosecutors and their "ridiculous indictment".

"I never thought anything like this could happen in America — never thought it could happen," he said from his Mar-a-Lago estate.

"The only crime that I've committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it."

Wearing a dark blue suit and his signature red tie, Mr Trump, 76, held his fist in the air in a gesture of defiance as he departed Trump Tower and made his way to court.

As he was being driven to the lower Manhattan courthouse, he posted on social media that the experience was "surreal".

About an hour later, Mr Trump sat with his hands folded as he entered his plea, flanked by his lawyers.

"Not guilty," Mr Trump said when asked how he pleaded.

New York prosecutors say Mr Trump illegally made a series of monthly payments to his lawyer Michael Cohen in 2017 to reimburse him for buying the silence of Stormy Daniels.

The adult film actress alleged she had an affair with Mr Trump in 2006. Mr Trump denies the affair and any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors assert that because the payment was made to influence the outcome of the 2016 election and was not properly disclosed, it was illegal. Cohen was convicted and served time in prison.

Mr Trump made a series of transfers to Cohen to reimburse him for the $130,000 hush money payment. That, too, was illegal under various state laws, prosecutors said.

"These are felony crimes in New York state. No matter who you are, we cannot and will not normalise serious criminal conduct," Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said after Mr Trump's arraignment.

"The defendant repeatedly made false statements on New York business records."

During the arraignment, Judge Juan Mercha told all parties involved in the case to avoid inflammatory rhetoric.

The admonishment came after Mr Trump reposted images on his social media channel that juxtaposed two photos — one of him holding a baseball bat, the other of Mr Bragg.

Mr Trump has also called the district attorney, who is black, a "racist in reverse" and an "animal", and Mr Bragg has received dozens of threats.

The court, which has banned video coverage of the case, released a photograph of a glum-looking Mr Trump as he was being arraigned.

He flew back to his home in Florida and was due to give an address in the evening.

The case against Mr Trump also includes allegations that the publisher of the National Enquirer paid off another woman, former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who also said she'd had an affair with him.

The publisher is also alleged to have paid off a doorman at Trump Tower to stop him talking about a child Mr Trump allegedly had out of wedlock.

While falsifying business records in New York on its own is a misdemeanour punishable by no more than one year in prison, it is elevated to a felony punishable by up to four years in prison when done to advance or conceal another crime.

Todd Blanche, one of Mr Trump's lawyers, said the former president was "frustrated" and "upset" after the arraignment.

"But I'll tell you what, he's motivated. And it's not going to stop him, and it's not going to slow him down," Mr Blanche said.

Thousands of supporters and anti-Trump protesters gathered outside the courthouse as helicopters swirled above.

Authorities were on the lookout for violence but no serious incidents were reported.

Protesters take to the streets ahead of Donald Trump's arraignment

Protesters take to the streets ahead of Donald Trump's arraignment

“I have been waiting for this moment for, like, over four years,” said Sarah O’Brien Rosenstein, who travelled from Pennsylvania.

“I just want justice to be served. I just don’t think that Trump is our man at all. You know the whole world collapsed when he was around and I would like to see a more peaceful world.”

Christine Goddard travelled from the Washington area to support Mr Trump.

"He is a good person for all," she told The National. "The people who don't like him are not for all.

Mr Trump, who served as president from 2017 to 2021, in November announced his campaign for the presidency in 2024 in a bid to deny Democratic President Joe Biden, who beat him in 2020, a second term in the White House.

The businessman-turned-politician has been a familiar figure for decades in New York, the city where he was raised, built his real estate business and became a celebrity.

But Manhattan is overwhelmingly liberal and Mr Trump is reviled by many in the borough. He argues his case should be heard in Staten Island, which voted for Mr Trump by a large margin in 2020.

Mr Trump, who was impeached twice by the House of Representatives but was never convicted in the Senate, faces a series of other criminal investigations and lawsuits.

Potentially of most pressing legal peril for him after the Manhattan case is a probe into 2020 election interference in the southern state of Georgia.

Any trial is at least more than a year away, legal experts say. Being indicted or even convicted does not legally prevent Mr Trump from running for president.

Jim Zirin, a former federal prosecutor whose most recent book A Plaintiff In Chief analyses Mr Trump’s legal history, called the indictment a “watershed” moment in American history.

He predicted that Mr Trump's legal peril would not be limited to this criminal case.

"I anticipate that this indictment will be followed by other indictments of crimes that you and I might deem to be more serious, but these are serious crimes as well," Mr Zirin told The National.

Former US president Donald Trump appears in court - in pictures

Updated: April 05, 2023, 6:58 AM