‘NOT GUILTY’: Trump responds to 34 felony charges after warning from judge

Trump, stone-faced and silent as he entered and exited the Manhattan courtroom, said “not guilty” in a firm voice.

By Associated Press

Donald Trump conspired to illegally influence the 2016 election through a series of hush money payments designed to silence claims that he feared would be harmful to his candidacy, New York prosecutors said Tuesday in unsealing a historic 34-count felony indictment.

The charges arose from a series of checks that Trump or his company wrote during the presidential campaign to his lawyer and fixer for his role in making a payment to a porn actor who alleged an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump years earlier.

The payments were part of “an unlawful plan to identify and suppress negative information that could have undermined his campaign for president,” Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy said in court. They were made to “protect his candidacy,” Conroy added.

The arraignment in Manhattan, though largely procedural in nature, was nonetheless the first time in U.S. history that a former president has faced a judge in his own criminal prosecution. The indictment amounts to a remarkable reckoning for Trump after years of investigations into his personal, business and political dealings, 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.

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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. All told, the ever-verbose Trump, who for weeks before Tuesday’s arraignment had assailed the case against him as political persecution, uttered only about 10 words — though he did appear to glare for a period at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

The next court date is December 4, though it is not clear if Trump will be required to appear.

The broad contours of the case have long been known, but the indictment contains new details about a scheme that prosecutors say began months into his presidential candidacy in 2015, as his celebrity past collided with his presidential ambitions. It centers on payoffs to two women, including porn star Stormy Daniels, 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.

“It’s not just about one payment. It is 34 false statements and business records that were concealing criminal conduct,” Bragg told reporters, when asked how the three separate alleged payments were connected.

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All 34 counts against Trump are linked to a series of checks that were written to Trump’s personal lawyer and problem-solver, Michael Cohen, to reimburse him for his role in paying off Daniels. Those payments, made over 12 months, were recorded in various internal company documents as being for a legal retainer that prosecutors say didn’t exist. Cohen testified before the grand jury and is expected to be a star prosecution witness. Nine of those monthly checks were paid out of Trump’s personal accounts, but records related to them were maintained in the Trump Organization’s data system.

Prosecutors allege that the first instance of Trump directing hush money payments came in the fall of 2015, when a former Trump Tower doorman was trying to sell information about an alleged out-of-wedlock child fathered by Trump.

David Pecker, a Trump friend and the publisher of the National Enquirer, made a $30,000 payment to the doorman to acquire the exclusive rights to the story, pursuant to an agreement to protect Trump during his presidential campaign, according to the indictment. Pecker’s company later determined the doorman’s story was false, but at Cohen’s urging is alleged to have enforced the doorman’s confidentiality until after Election Day.

The investigation also concerns six-figure payments made to 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.