Donald Trump on Tuesday (4 April) pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts - becoming the first current or former US President to be charged with a crime.
The 76-year-old was charged for falsifying business records, in connection with a scheme that directed hush money payments to two women during the final days of his 2016 presidential campaign. Prosecutors alleged that the payments amounted to a conspiracy to influence the election, as the intention had been to silence the women’s claims of extramarital affairs with Trump.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced the former US President’s indictment at Manhattan Criminal Courthouse. The indictment claimed that during the election, Trump and those associated with him had employed a “catch and kill” scheme to “identify, purchase, and bury negative information” - with the hopes of “boosting his electoral prospects”.
This included making hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels, who said she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, and to Playboy model Karen McDougal, who wanted to sell her story of an affair with Trump. A payment was also made to a former Trump Tower doorman, who claimed the ex-US President had fathered a child out of wedlock.
“Not guilty,” Trump said from his seat to Judge Juan Merchan during the hearing. The only other time he spoke was to sigh, “I know,” when he was warned that he could be removed from the courthouse if he was disruptive.
What is Donald Trump charged with?
Hush money payments
The charges accuse Trump of three different instances - between August 2015 and December 2017 - of making hush money payments to cover up alleged affairs. Prosecutors argued that thi was part of a “catch and kill” scheme, which the ex-US President then covered up through false business entries.
In one instance, 12 days before the presidential election, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen allegedly wired $130,000 (£104,000) to porn star Stormy Daniels. She claimed she and Trump had had sex - something he strongly denies.
After Trump was elected US President, he reimbursed Cohen with 11 monthly checks. These were first issued by the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, while later ones came from Trump’s bank account. Nine were signed by Trump, and each was “illegally disguised as a payment for legal services”, prosecutors said.
In another instance, prosecutors said American Media Inc (AMI), publisher of The National Enquirer, the supermarket tabloid that was allied with Trump, paid $150,000 (£120,000) to a woman, understood to be Playboy model Karen McDougal, who alleged she had a sexual relationship with Trump.
According to the charges, Trump later directed a lawyer to reimburse AMI in cash - before a special counsel indicated to him that the payment should be made via a shell company. AMI ultimately declined to accept reimbursement.
In a third instance, which had not been reported before, AMI also was said to have paid $30,000 (£24,000) to a former doorman at Trump Tower, who claimed to have a story about Trump fathering a child out of wedlock.
Conspiracy to influence the 2016 presidential election
The charges also accuse Trump of “orchestrating” a scheme to influence the 2016 presidential election. This, prosecutors said, was done by “identifying, purchasing, and burying negative information” in order to suppress its publication and therefore benefit electoral prospects.
While three hush money payments are detailed in the indictment, the actual charges seem to focus on the “falsified” business records intended to hide the payments to Michael Cohen, made following the settlement with Stormy Daniels.
What has Donald Trump said?
Prior to appearing in court, Trump claimed that the case against him is a politically motivated “WITCH HUNT”. Later, speaking at his home in Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Trump told reporters: “I never thought anything like this could happen in America. I never thought it could happen. The only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.”
He claimed “our country is going to hell”, and described Bragg as “a local failed district attorney” and a “criminal” who “illegally leaked massive amounts of grand jury information for which he should be prosecuted or, at a minimum, he should resign.”
“There’s no case,” he continued. “They kept saying there’s no case. Virtually everyone. But it’s far worse than that because he knew there was no case.”
Previously, when the news of his indictment broke, Trump took to his social media platform Truth Social to respond. Misspelling the word ‘indicted’, the 76-year-old said: “These Thugs and Radical Left Monsters have just INDICATED the 45th President of the United States of America, and the leading Republican Candidate, by far, for the 2024 Nomination for President.
“THIS IS AN ATTACK ON OUR COUNTRY THE LIKES OF WHICH HAS NEVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE. IT IS LIKEWISE A CONTINUING ATTACK ON OUR ONCE FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS. THE USA IS NOW A THIRD WORLD NATION, A NATION IN SERIOUS DECLINE. SO SAD!”
During his hearing, Judge Juan Merchan advised Trump: “Please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest.” Trump later told supporters he had a “Trump-hating judge” with a “Trump-hating wife”.
Could Donald Trump go to prison?
The charges against Trump are interesting because they are complex. Hush money payments alone are not illegal, but the falsification of business records in relation to them is a criminal offence in New York.
On its own, falsifying business records is classed as a misdemeanour - punishable by no more than one year in prison. However, the crime is elevated to a felony, punishable by up to four years in prison, when done so to advance or conceal another crime.
Prosecutors alleged that the payments were made to influence a presidential election, which breaks election law and amounts to campaign fraud charges.
Therefore, Sky News reported that taken together, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 136 years under New York law. However, if Trump were to be convicted, his sentence would almost certainly be far less than that. Trump has pleaded “not guilty” to all counts, and his lawyers, Joseph Tacopina and Susan Necheles, have said they will “vigorously” fight this “political prosecution.”