Defiant Trump pleads not guilty to 34 felony counts

Donald Trump

Former U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he arrives at the Manhattan Criminal Court for his arraignment hearing on April 04, 2023 in New York.

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts inside a packed New York courtroom Tuesday, in a dramatic hearing that transfixed the nation and began the countdown to the first-ever criminal trial of an American president.

After a stern glare to the waiting press, Trump spent about an hour inside a Manhattan courtroom where he voluntarily surrendered to face charges over hush money payments that have already upended the 2024 White House race in which he leads the Republican field.

"Not guilty," the 76-year-old former president said in a clear voice inside the courtroom, where he sat with his shoulders up to his ears, at times looking annoyed but mostly listening cooperatively.

Trump denied all the charges, which related to payments to keep people quiet including over an alleged affair with an adult film actress, and was released from custody without any restrictions.

A trial could potentially start as soon as January, Judge Juan Merchan said, meaning Trump could be in a courtroom just as primary elections begin in the presidential race.

The hotel tycoon is accused of falsifying business records including some that were allegedly mischaracterized for tax purposes.

"These are felony crimes in New York State," said Manhattan's District Attorney Alvin Bragg, an elected Democrat who has faced heated attacks from Trump and his family.

"We today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law," Bragg told reporters.

Security was especially tight inside the courtroom, with journalists barred from bringing in electronics including even watches.

Trump's lawyers, denouncing the allegations as "sad" and "boilerplate," want the trial pushed back to the spring.

"We're going to fight it, we're going to fight it hard," attorney Todd Blanche said outside the court complex.

'Surreal' scene 

Trump was expected to speak at length later including at a campaign-style event after the native New Yorker flies back to his estate in Florida.

In a spectacle that played out on live television -- with rival protesters rallying outside -- the hearing marked a watershed moment for the US criminal and political system.

The twice-impeached Republican is the first sitting or former American president to be criminally indicted.

Police lined the streets while helicopters buzzed in the skies as Trump's motorcade made the short drive to court, a journey given wall-to-wall live coverage on US networks although cameras were not allowed for the hearing itself.

Trump was not subjected to a "perp walk" -- in which a defendant is escorted in handcuffs past media cameras.

But the former president was believed to have undergone the standard booking procedure of being fingerprinted.

Trump claims he is the victim of "political persecution" -- but is also using the case to energize supporters and raise millions of dollars for his new White House bid.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the venue, as well as media and curious onlookers.

Police stepped into the fray as the pro-Trump side -- sporting "MAGA" hats and attire emblazoned with the American flag -- yelled slurs at counterprotesters.

The anti-Trump camp unfurled a large banner reading "Trump lies all the time" and chanted "Lock him up!" as Trump fans waved a flag with the slogan "Trump or Death."

Payment before election

The most famous charges against Trump revolve around the investigation of $130,000 paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels just days before Trump's election win.

Trump's former lawyer and aide Michael Cohen, who has turned against his ex-boss, says he arranged the payment to Daniels in exchange for her silence about a tryst she says she had with Trump in 2006.

Trump for years rejoiced in his reputation as a playboy but, running as the candidate of social conservatives, denied the affair with Daniels which would have occurred just after his third wife Melania gave birth.

Prosecutors also faulted Trump over a $30,000 payment made through an intermediary to keep quiet a doorman at Trump Tower over allegations that the former president had a child out of wedlock.

A final case involved a woman who received $150,000 from a US tabloid in exchange for not speaking about a sexual relationship she allegedly had with Trump.

Trump is facing a series of separate criminal investigations at the state and federal level that could result in further -- more serious -- charges between now and Election Day.

They include his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state of Georgia, his handling of classified documents, and his possible involvement in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

President Joe Biden, mindful that anything he might say could fuel Trump's claim of a politically "weaponized" judicial system, is one of the few Democrats holding back over the indictment of his rival.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden would "catch part of the news when he has a moment," but insisted: "This is not something that's a focus for him."

Republicans meanwhile have largely rallied around Trump, including his rival in the party's presidential primary, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who called the indictment "un-American."