Mr. Trump faces charges related to hush money paid to a porn star, becoming the first former U.S. president to be criminally indicted.

The latest

  • Former President Donald Trump has pled not guilty on all felony charges related to falsified business records, hush money paid to a porn star.
  • Mr. Trump arrived at a New York courthouse Tuesday to surrender ahead of his formal arrest. He entered the courtroom around 2:30 p.m. and was arraigned in front of Judge Juan Merchan.
  • The unprecedented case makes Mr. Trump the first former U.S. president to be criminally indicted. This puts the country in uncharted legal and constitutional territory, and threatens to upend the 2024 presidential race.
  • There could be more legal troubles ahead for Mr. Trump, who is the subject of three other criminal investigations.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump has been arraigned on 34 criminal charges of falsifying business documents related to an alleged conspiracy to illegally influence the 2016 election via a hush-money payment to a porn star. He pleaded not guilty on all counts.

Surrounded by Secret Service bodyguards, Mr. Trump surrendered Tuesday afternoon at a heavily guarded Lower Manhattan courthouse to be arrested, booked and fingerprinted before a 45-minute hearing in front of Judge Juan Merchan. He gave a raised-fist salute to supporters outside of Trump Tower before heading by motorcade to the court, but otherwise looked stone-faced and said nothing on his way in or out.

“The defendant Donald J. Trump repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election,” read a statement of facts filed by the prosecution.

At a subsequent press conference, District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who sought the indictment, said Mr. Trump had tried to cover up a plot to “promote a candidate by unlawful means” and violate federal limits on campaign contributions. “These are felony crimes in New York State, no matter who you are. We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct,” Mr. Bragg said.

The first case of a U.S. president facing a criminal indictment puts the country on uncharted legal and constitutional territory. It threatens to upend the 2024 presidential race, in which Mr. Trump is making a bid to return to the White House, even as he has sought to use the charges to rally the Republican base to his side.

The drama could also foreshadow even more serious legal peril for Mr. Trump. He is the subject of three other criminal investigations, in which prosecutors are still deciding whether to pursue charges over Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 re-election defeat and his handling of classified documents.

During the unusually long arraignment, prosecutors raised Mr. Trump’s attacks on judicial officials, including Mr. Bragg and Judge Merchan, and calls for unrest among his supporters. The judge called for everyone involved to keep their rhetoric cool.

What do Trump’s indictment and arraignment mean? Readers’ questions, answered

In a speech at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida estate, on Tuesday evening, Mr. Trump instead doubled down. He described Mr. Bragg as “radical left” and the “real criminal,” calling for him to be charged instead. Judge Merchan, he said, was a “Trump-hating judge.”

The former president painted himself as the victim of politically motivated judicial officials.

“This fake case was brought only to interfere with the upcoming 2024 election and it should be dropped immediately,” he said. “Our justice system has become lawless.”

The charges concern a US$130,000 payment by Mr. Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels two weeks before the 2016 election. In exchange for the money, Ms. Daniels agreed to keep quiet about an extramarital affair she said she had with Mr. Trump. The former president has denied sleeping with Ms. Daniels.

Mr. Trump subsequently paid Mr. Cohen back with a series of cheques during the first year of his presidency. The pay amounted to US$420,000, including the reimbursement, a US$60,000 “bonus” and funds to cover Mr. Cohen’s income taxes.

Prosecutors allege Mr. Trump broke the law by listing the payment as a retainer for legal services in bookkeeping entries, invoices and on the cheques themselves, to conceal the fee’s actual purpose.

The payment to Ms. Daniels, Mr. Bragg alleged, was part of a larger conspiracy between Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen and David Pecker, then the head of the company that owns the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid, to find and suppress stories that might be damaging to Mr. Trump before the election. The arrangement, the statement of facts says, was hatched at a Trump Tower meeting in August, 2015, and bolstered by subsequent messages and phone calls.

The trio also orchestrated payoffs to Karen McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump, and Dino Sajudin, a former Trump World Tower doorman who said he had information about a child fathered by Mr. Trump out of wedlock. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty five years ago to campaign-finance violations related to his part in the scheme and is set to be a key prosecution witness.

The next hearing in the case will not be until Dec. 4. Mr. Trump’s lawyers are expected to file a flurry of pretrial motions, including a bid to get the charges immediately thrown out. The case could also end up litigating constitutional questions around charging or convicting a U.S. president, since no precedent for this has been established.

Todd Blanche, who became Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer in the case days ago, said outside the courthouse that the indictment was “boilerplate” and “sad.” He vowed: “We’re going to fight it, we’re going to fight it hard.”

Police shut down streets and set up a wide cordon around the courthouse, in a bid to avoid a repeat of the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol. Protests, however, were relatively small. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene led one group of Trump supporters near the courthouse. Anti-Trump demonstrators, meanwhile, carried signs reading “lock him up,” in mockery of the Trump campaign’s 2016 slogan about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Trump had exhorted supporters to “TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” in social-media posts and warned of “potential death & destruction” if he were indicted. He also attacked Mr. Bragg, who is Black, as “Racist” and “Corrupt.”

Mr. Trump, the only U.S. president to be impeached twice – he was acquitted both times after trials in the Senate – has long tried to use accusations of wrongdoing to his advantage. A fundraising campaign portraying Mr. Trump as the victim of an out-of-control justice system has raised US$7-million for his presidential bid since he was indicted last week.

In addition to the hush-money case, Mr. Trump is also under federal investigation for trying to overturn his 2020 defeat by U.S. President Joe Biden and for failing to return classified documents that he took to Mar-a-Lago after leaving office. In Georgia, meanwhile, prosecutors are mulling charging Mr. Trump for his efforts to throw out the 2020 election results in the key swing state.

The Globe and Mail, April 4, 2023