NEW YORK (Reuters)—Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty in a historic moment for the United States on Tuesday to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, as prosecutors accused him of paying two women to suppress their accounts of sexual encounters with him.
The indictment, unsealed after Trump's court appearance along with a statement of facts, alleged that Trump and others violated election laws through a scheme to suppress the publication of negative information about him ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. The two women were adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Wearing a dark blue suit and red tie, Trump, the first sitting or former U.S. president to face criminal charges, sat with his hands folded at the defense table as he entered his plea flanked by his lawyers.
"Not guilty," Trump, 76, said when asked how he pleaded.
"We're going to fight it. We're going to fight it hard," Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Trump, told reporters after the arraignment, adding that Trump was frustrated, upset and angry about the charges.
"But I'll tell you what - he's motivated. And it's not going to stop him. And it's not going to slow him down. And it's exactly what he expected," Blanche added.
The judge set the next court hearing for Dec. 4 and did not issue a gag order on any of the parties.
Some of the evidence against Trump was caught in an audio recording in September 2016 as he and his attorney discussed how to suppress stories about his affair, prosecutors said. Court documents said Trump can be heard saying, "So what do we got to pay for this?"
Trump's reimbursement checks to a lawyer for the suppression payments falsely stated that the money was for a "retainer agreement," prosecutors said. The indictment accused Trump of falsifying his real estate company's books with intent to defraud.
Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, said nothing as he entered the courtroom or when he left roughly an hour later. Trump previously called the charges politically motivated.
He was due to return to Florida and deliver remarks from his Mar-a-Lago resort at 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday (0015 GMT on Wednesday), his office said.
Taken together, the charges carry a maximum sentence of more than 100 years in prison under New York law but an actual prison sentence if he is convicted at a trial would almost certainly be far less than that.
While falsifying business records in New York on its own is a misdemeanor punishable by no more than one year in prison, it is elevated to a felony punishable by up to four years in prison when done to advance or conceal another crime.
The Manhattan grand jury convened by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg that indicted Trump heard evidence about a $130,000 payment made to Daniels in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Daniels has said she was paid to keep silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump at a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2006.
Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has said he coordinated with Trump on payments to Daniels and McDougal. Trump has denied having had sexual relationships with either woman, but has acknowledged reimbursing Cohen.
Trump lawyer Joseph Tacopina said after the indictment that if the defendant was anyone other than Trump, there would have been no charges.
Bragg, a Democrat, was due to give a news conference later on Tuesday.
Trump departed his New York residence at Trump Tower in a motorcade bound for the courthouse. He showed little emotion when he waved to a crowd assembled outside the courthouse.
From his motorcade, Trump posted on social media: "Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL - WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can't believe this is happening in America."
Trump surrendered to Bragg's office before the arraignment began in Justice Juan Merchan's court. At an arraignment, a defendant hears charges and can enter a plea. Trump was fingerprinted but no mugshot photo was taken, according to a Twitter post by a New York Times reporter.
In other social media posts ahead of the arraignment, Trump renewed his attacks on Merchan, who last year presided over a trial in which Trump's real estate company was convicted of tax fraud.
Trump, who served as president from 2017 to 2021, in November announced a bid to regain the presidency in 2024 in a bid to deny Democratic President Joe Biden, who beat him in 2020, a second term in the White House.
The businessman-turned-politician has been a familiar figure for decades in New York, the city where he was raised, built his real estate business and became a celebrity.
On a cool and sunny early spring day in the most-populous U.S. city, Trump supporters and detractors were separated by barricades set up by police to try to keep order, though there were some confrontations.
"Let's keep it civil, folks," a police officer told them.
Hundreds of Trump supporters, at a park across from the Manhattan courthouse, cheered and blew whistles, outnumbering his detractors. The Trump critics held signs including one of Trump dressed in a striped jail uniform behind bars and another that read, "Lock Him Up."
The White House remained mum on the drama in New York.
"I think the American people should feel reassured that when there is an ongoing case like this one that we're just not commenting," White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
Any trial is at least more than a year away, legal experts said. Being indicted or even convicted does not legally prevent Trump from running for president.
Trump faces a separate criminal probe by a Democratic local prosecutor in Georgia into whether he unlawfully tried to overturn his 2020 election defeat in the state. He also faces two U.S. Justice Department investigations led by a special counsel into efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and his handling of classified documents after leaving office.
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld and Jody Godoy; Additional reporting by Julia Harte, Tyler Clifford, Jonathan Allen, Jeenah Moon and David Dee Delgado in New York, Nathan Layne in Connecticut and Doina Chiacu and Richard Cowan in Washington; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Howard Goller)