By Spy Uganda Correspondent
Former President Donald Trump was charged on Tuesday with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in a historic case over allegations he orchestrated hush-money payments to two women before the 2016 US election to suppress publication of their sexual encounters with him.
Prosecutors in Manhattan accused Trump, the first sitting or former US president to face criminal charges, of trying to conceal a violation of election laws during his successful 2016 campaign.
“Not guilty,” Trump, 76, said when asked by the judge in court how he pleaded. Wearing a dark blue suit and red tie, Trump sat, subdued, with his hands folded at the defense table flanked by his lawyers.
The front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination in 2024, Trump responded with answers like “yes” when the judge asked him if he understood a right. At one point, the judge put his hand to his ear as if to prompt an answer.
Prosecutor Chris Conroy said: “The defendant Donald J. Trump falsified New York business records in order to conceal an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of the 2016 presidential election and other violations of election laws.”
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 when done to advance or conceal another crime, such as election law violations.
The two women in the case are adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Prosecutors during the arraignment said Trump made a series of social media posts, including one threatening “death and destruction” if he was charged. The judge asked the parties to “please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest.”
On a cool and sunny early spring day in New York, Trump supporters and detractors before the arraignment were separated by barricades set up by police to try to keep order, though there were some confrontations.
Earlier in the day, 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.”
Justice Juan Merchan set the next hearing for Dec. 4. Legal experts said a trial may not even get under way for a year, and indictment or even a conviction will not legally prevent Trump from running for president.
“We’re going to fight it hard,” Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Trump, told reporters after the arraignment. He said that while Trump was frustrated, upset and angry about the charges, “… 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.”
The grand jury convened by 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.
The former publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, offered to look out for negative stories during Trump’s campaign, prosecutors said. American Media Inc, its parent company, paid McDougal $150,000 to buy the rights to her story but then kept it secret. It also paid a former Trump Tower doorman $30,000 to buy the rights to an untrue story about a child Trump had allegedly fathered out of wedlock.
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 for his payment to Daniels.