Former President Donald Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with a scheme that directed hush money payments to two women before the 2016 presidential election.
The 16-page indictment against Trump was unsealed Tuesday as he became the first former U.S. president ever to be arraigned on criminal charges.
“Not guilty,” Trump said from his seat to Judge Juan Merchan during the hearing in Manhattan Supreme Court.
The indictment says those payments were part of a broader scheme to suppress claims by the women, porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, that they had sex with Trump, in a bid to keep their stories from affecting Trump's chances against Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
Prosecutors also said a Trump-friendly publishing company, American Media Inc., paid $30,000 to a former Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about Trump fathering a child out of wedlock.
All three payments were part of an alleged “catch and kill” effort by Trump and others, among them then-AMI chief David Pecker, from August 2015 to December 2017 “to identify, purchase, and bury negative information about him and boost his electoral prospects,” prosecutors said.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg at a press conference said each of the false statements in business records, which related to the payment to Daniels, were done to cover up other crimes related to the 2016 election.
Those crimes included violations of New York state election law, and false statements to tax authorities, he said.
Falsifying business records can be charged as a misdemeanor, but it also can be charged as a felony if done to cover up another crime. It more commonly is charged as a felony in Manhattan.
Merchan scheduled the next hearing in the case for Dec. 4. It is possible that the criminal case will not be resolved before the 2024 presidential election, where Trump is seeking the Republican nomination.
Bragg in a statement said, “The People of the State of New York allege that Donald J. Trump repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal crimes that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”
“Manhattan is home to the country's most significant business market. We cannot allow New York businesses to manipulate their records to cover up criminal conduct,” Bragg said.
A prosecutor told the judge that the DA's office was concerned about comments Trump has made on social media that could threaten the DA's office and the city.
That included one post depicting Trump wielding a bat over the head of District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
The judge said that he was taking the harsh rhetoric by Trump about the case very seriously.
One of Trump's lawyers, Todd Blanche, told Merchan that Trump has spoken forcefully, but that he was within his rights to do so.
Before the arraignment, Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., posted a photo on Trump's Truth Social site of Merchan's daughter, who according to a Breitbart news article worked on the election campaign of President Joe Biden.
“Seems relevant,” the younger Trump wrote. “The BS never ends folks.”
Hush money payments
Daniels received $130,000 from Trump's then-lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen at Trump's direction, 12 days before the 2016 election. Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, says she had sex with Trump one time in 2006, several months after his wife Melania Trump gave birth to their son Barron.
Trump later reimbursed Cohen with a series of monthly checks, 11 in total. The checks first were issued by the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, while later ones came from Trump's bank account, prosecutors said.
Nine of the checks were signed by Trump, and “Each check was processed by the Trump Organization and illegally disguised as a payment for legal services rendered pursuant to a non-existent retainer agreement” with Cohen.
McDougal received $150,000 from AMI, the publisher of The National Enquirer, the supermarket tabloid that was allied with Trump. McDougal has said she had a long-term affair with Trump that began in 2006.
Trump denies having sex with either Daniels or McDougal.
Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal crimes, two of which were campaign finance violations for facilitating the payments to both Daniels and McDougal.
The grand jury indicted Trump on Thursday. The charging document had remained sealed since then.
The grand jury began hearing testimony in the case in late January.
News of the proceedings came as a surprise, since a former prosecutor in the district attorney's office last year had suggested the investigation into Trump was all but dead after Bragg declined to seek an indictment against Trump in connection with allegedly false financial statements involving real estate assets.
Trump separately is under criminal investigation by the Department of Justice and a state prosecutor in Georgia for efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden.
The DOJ also is probing Trump for retaining government records after leaving the White House and for possible obstruction of justice.