Donald Trump made a momentous courtroom appearance on Tuesday when he was confronted with a 34-count felony indictment charging him in a scheme to bury allegations of extramarital affairs that arose during his first White House campaign.
The arraignment in a Manhattan courtroom was a stunning — and humbling — spectacle for the first ex-president to ever face criminal charges.
With Mr Trump watching in silence, prosecutors bluntly accused him of criminal conduct and set the stage for a possible criminal trial in the city where he became a celebrity decades ago.
The indictment centres on allegations that Mr Trump falsified internal business records at his private company while trying to cover up an effort to illegally influence the 2016 election by arranging payments that silenced claims potentially harmful to his candidacy.
It includes 34 counts of fudging records related to cheques Mr Trump sent to his personal lawyer and problem-solver to reimburse him for his role in paying off a porn actor who said she had an extramarital sexual encounter with Mr Trump years earlier.
“The defendant, Donald J Trump, falsified New York business records in order to conceal an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of the 2016 presidential election and other violations of election laws,” said assistant district attorney Christopher Conroy.
Mr Trump, sombre and silent as he entered and exited the Manhattan courtroom, said “not guilty” in a firm voice while facing a judge who warned him to refrain from rhetoric that could inflame or cause civil unrest.
All told, the ever-verbose Mr Trump, who for weeks before Tuesday’s arraignment had assailed the case against him as political persecution, uttered only 10 words in the courtroom. He appeared to glare for a period at Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor who brought the case.
As he returned to his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, where he delivered a primetime address to hundreds of supporters, Mr Trump again protested his innocence and asserted on his Truth Social platform that the “hearing was shocking to many in that they had no ‘surprises’, and therefore, no case.”
In his speech, Mr Trump lashed out anew at the prosecution and attacked in bitter terms the prosecutor and the judge presiding over the case despite being admonished hours earlier about incendiary rhetoric.
In a sign that other probes are weighing on him, Mr Trump also steered his speech into a broadside against a separate Justice Department investigation into the mishandling of classified documents.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America,” Mr Trump said of the New York indictment.
“This fake case was brought only to interfere with the upcoming 2024 election and it should be dropped immediately.”
The crowd at Mar-a-Lago included supporters like failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and long-time ally Roger Stone. Mr Trump’s wife, Melania, was absent from his side and was also not seen with him in New York.
Even so, the indictment amounts to a remarkable reckoning for Mr Trump after years of investigations into his personal, business and political dealings.
It shows how even as Mr Trump is looking to reclaim the White House in 2024, he is shadowed by investigations related to his behaviour in the two prior elections, with prosecutors in Atlanta and Washington scrutinising efforts by Mr Trump and his allies to undo the 2020 presidential election — probes that could produce even more charges.
In the New York case, each count of falsifying business records, a felony, is punishable by up to four years in prison — though it is not clear if a judge would impose any prison time if Mr Trump is convicted.
Any alleged offence punishable by more than one year in prison is called a felony in the US justice system.
The next court date is December 4 — two months before Republicans begin their nominating process in earnest — and Mr Trump will again be expected to appear.
A conviction would not prevent Mr Trump from running for or winning the presidency in 2024.
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