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In a historic first, former President Donald Trump is charged with 34 felony counts

Former President Donald Trump sits with his defense team in a Manhattan court on Tuesday.
Seth Wenig
/
AP
Former President Donald Trump sits with his defense team in a Manhattan court on Tuesday.

Updated April 4, 2023 at 5:28 PM ET

Former President Donald Trump was charged in an indictment unsealed Tuesday with 34 felony counts of falsification of business records in the first degree.

He pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

The criminal charges — a historic first against a sitting or former president — are the culmination of an investigation into hush-money payments that Trump paid prior to the 2016 election to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels to cover up an alleged affair.

Trump and his allies have called the charges politically motivated.

The charges were made public days after a Manhattan grand jury indicted Trump.

"Under New York state law, it is a felony to falsify business records with intent to defraud, intent to conceal another crime," Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a news conference after Trump's arraignment. "That is exactly what this case is about: 34 false statements made to cover up other crimes. These are felony crimes in New York State no matter who you are. We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct."

Trump was seen entering a Manhattan courtroom for his arraignment at 2:28 p.m. ET, and left the courtroom at 3:25. Trump was not handcuffed when he entered the room, and did not speak when he exited. Trump was seen in photos seated at the defendant's table in the courtroom, in between his lawyers Joe Tacopina and Susan Necheles. New York police officers stood behind the table.

"Today's unsealing of the indictment shows that the rule of law died in this country," Tacopina said outside the courthouse. "If this man's name was not Donald J. Trump there is no scenario we'd all be here today."

The case's background

The charges allege that, beginning in mid-2015, Trump orchestrated a scheme with others to influence the 2016 presidential election. They allegedly identified and bought negative claims about him to suppress their publication to boost his electoral prospects. By doing this they allegedly violated election laws and made false entries in the business records of various entities in New York. They also allegedly took steps that mischaracterized, for tax purposes, the true nature of the payments made in the scheme.

The charges also allege that in or about October or November 2015, the owner of the National Inquirer tabloid learned that a former Trump Tower doorman was trying to sell information regarding a child that Trump had allegedly fathered out of wedlock. At the owner's direction, his publishing company negotiated and signed an agreement to pay the former doorman $30,000 to acquire exclusive rights to the story. The company then allegedly falsely characterized this payment in its records. It bought the information from the former doorman without fully investigating his claims — and later concluded that it was not true — but the owner directed that the deal take place because of his agreement with Trump and his lawyer.

The indictment includes a separate $150,000 payment to another woman who allegedly had an intimate relationship with Trump. Former Playboy model Karen McDougal is not named in the charges but she has talked openly about that experience in interviews.

The case against Trump stems from a 2018 guilty plea by Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, who admitted to making illegal campaign contributions in the form of buying women's silence about their alleged relationships with Trump. He said that in 2016, he paid $130,000 to silence Daniels, who claimed she had an affair with Trump.

Cohen got the money from a home equity line of credit. He arranged to be reimbursed over the course of the next year by Trump.

The monthly checks, totaling $420,000, were identified as a "retainer" payment for Cohen. Some came from the Trump trust, but others were signed by Trump himself, from what Cohen said was his personal account. Falsifying business records could be a felony under New York law, if it was done in furtherance of another crime, such as a campaign finance violation. Cohen said he even discussed the checks with Trump inside the Oval Office at the White House.

Trump and his allies have questioned Cohen's credibility. But at his news conference, DA Bragg said his investigators obtained texts, emails, contemporaneous phone records and testimony from multiple witnesses — information that would emerge at trial.

The next court date is Dec. 4. The prosecution said it hoped to have trial in January 2024; the defense asked for the spring of 2024.

Trump is the frontrunner in the Republican presidential field ahead of the November 2024 election.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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