By Michael R. Sisak, Eric Tucker, Jennifer Peltz, and Will Weissert
Donald Trump conspired to illegally influence the 2016 election through a series of hush money payments designed to stifle claims that could be harmful to his candidacy, prosecutors said Tuesday in unsealing a historic 34-count felony indictment against the former president.
The payments, said Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy, were part of “an unlawful plan to identify and suppress negative information that could have undermined his campaign for president.”
Trump, stone-faced 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.
The next court date is December 4, though it is not clear if he will be required to appear.
The broad contours of the case have long been known, but indictment contains new details about a scheme that prosecutors say involved payoffs to two women, including a porn star, who said they had extramarital sexual encounters with him years earlier, as well as to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about a child he alleged the former president had out of of wedlock.
The arraignment, though largely procedural in nature, amounts to a remarkable reckoning for Trump after years of investigations into his personal, business and political dealings. The case is unfolding against the backdrop not only of his third campaign for the White House but also against other investigations in Washington and Atlanta that might yet produce even more charges.
Trump, his lips pursed in apparent anger, entered the courtroom shortly before 2:30 p.m. He left court about an hour later, also without commenting. All told, the typically verbose Trump spoke only about 10 words during the entire proceeding.
Before the arraignment, he narrated his feelings in real time, describing the experience as “SURREAL” as he traveled from Trump Tower to lower Manhattan to face a judge.
The day's schedule, with its striking blend of legal and political events, represents the new split-screen reality for Trump as he submits to the dour demands of the American criminal justice system while projecting an aura of defiance and victimhood at celebratory campaign events.
Wearing his signature dark suit and red tie, Trump turned and waved to crowds outside the building before heading inside to be fingerprinted and processed. He arrived at court in an eight-car motorcade from Trump Tower, communicating in real time his anger at the process.
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse," he posted on his Truth Social platform. "Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
Afterward, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche told reporters that it was a “sad day for the country.”
“You don’t expect this to happen to somebody who was president of the United States," he said.
Trump, who was impeached twice by the U.S. House but was never convicted in the U.S. Senate, is the first former president to face criminal charges. The nation's 45th commander in chief was escorted from Trump Tower to the courthouse by the Secret Service.
“He is strong and ready to go,” Trump lawyer Joe Tacopina told The Associated Press. Earlier, Tacopina said in a TV interview that the former president wouldn't plead guilty to lesser charges, even if it might resolve the case. He also said he didn't think the case would make it to a jury.
New York police said they were ready for large protests by Trump supporters, who share the Republican former president’s belief that the New York grand jury indictment and three additional pending investigations are politically motivated and intended to weaken his bid to retake the White House in 2024. Journalists often outnumbered protesters, though.
Trump, a former reality TV star, has been hyping that narrative to his political advantage, saying he raised more than $8 million in the days since the indictment on claims of a “witch hunt.” His campaign released a fundraising request titled “My last email before arrest” and he has repeatedly assailed Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, egged on supporters to protest and claimed without evidence that the judge presiding over the case “hates me” — something his own lawyer has said is not true.
Trump was scheduled to return to his Palm Beach, Florida, home, Mar-a-Lago, on Tuesday evening to give remarks. At least 500 prominent supporters have been invited, with some of the most pro-Trump congressional Republicans expected to attend.
A conviction would not prevent Trump from running for or winning the presidency in 2024.
The investigation is scrutinizing six-figure payments made to porn actor Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both say they had sexual encounters with the married Trump years before he got into politics. Trump denies having sexual liaisons with either woman and has denied any wrongdoing involving payments.
The arraignment unfolded against the backdrop of heavy security in New York, coming more than two years after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a failed bid to halt the congressional certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s win.
Trump was defiant ahead of his arraignment. He used his social media network to complain that he was going to court in a heavily Democratic area, declaring, “KANGAROO COURT” and “THIS IS NOT WHAT AMERICA WAS SUPPOSED TO BE!” He and his campaign have repeatedly assailed Bragg and even trained scrutiny on members of Bragg's family.
Despite that, the scenes around Trump Tower and the courthouse where Trump will stand before a judge did not feature major unrest. Police tried to keep apart protesters supporting the former president and those opposing him by confining them to separate sides of a park near the courthouse using metal barricades.
Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of Trump’s staunchest supporters in Congress, staged a brief rally at the park, but the scene was so chaotic that it was hard to hear her over the crush of reporters and protesters.
“We’re the party of peace,” Greene said, thanking those Trump supporters present. “Democrats are communists.”
Embattled Republican New York Rep. George Santos also showed up in solidarity with Trump, saying, “I want to support the president."
“I think this is unprecedented and it’s a bad day for democracy,” Santos said, suggesting that future prosecutors could target Biden and other presidents with other cases, which “cheapens the judicial system.”
New York’s ability to carry out safe and drama-free courthouse proceedings in a case involving a polarizing ex-president could be an important test case as prosecutors in Atlanta and Washington conduct their own investigations of Trump that could also result in charges. Those investigations concern efforts to undo the 2020 election results as well as the possible mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
Tucker and Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press journalists Jill Colvin, Bobby Caina Calvan, Larry Neumeister, Karen Matthews, Larry Fleisher, Deepti Hajela, Julie Walker, Ted Shaffrey, David R. Martin, Joe Frederick and Robert Bumsted in New York and Colleen Long and Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.
Updated April 4, 2023 at 4:59 p.m. ET with details of indictment.