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Sunday, Mar 03, 2024

Donald Trump indictment: Former president pleads not guilty to 34 felony charges

Court documents lay out alleged 'unlawful scheme'

Donald Trump has been indicted on 34 counts of falsification of business records, making him the first former president in US history to face the prospect of a criminal trial.

These are felony charges, which denote serious crimes – ones that could include prison time if a maximum sentence was given.

The charges all arise from Trump’s alleged reimbursement over the course of 11 months of “Lawyer A” for a $130,000 payment to “Woman 2”, who was shopping a story about an alleged affair she had with Trump in the days before the 2016 presidential election.

Although not identified, the facts would indicate that Lawyer A is former president’s lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, while Woman 2 is adult film star Stormy Daniels.

The indictment alleges that Trump falsified cheque records and ledger entries to make it appear that those payments were for “legal fees” and not reimbursements.

It also alleges that the total amount provided to Lawyer A was in excess of the amount he paid Woman 2 in order to compensate for income-tax payments.

The charge of business record falsification is typically a lesser crime – a misdemeanor – but in this case the district attorney’s office elevated the charges to a more serious felony level because, it said, Trump intended to cover up the felony federal campaign finance crime to which Lawyer A pleaded guilty in August 2018.

The indictment’s Statement of Facts provides further background information about what it called Trump’s “unlawful scheme” to prevent damaging information from being revealed about him in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

It provided two other instances of payments made on Trump’s behalf, by the National Enquirer tabloid newspaper to a doorman who alleged he knew of an illegitimate child Trump fathered and to Woman 1, who evidence suggests is Playboy model Karen McDougal.

“Ultimately,” the statement reads, “other participants in the scheme admitted that the payoffs were unlawful.”

Neither of these instances led to criminal charges against Trump, however.

The indictment is solely targeted toward the hush-money payment to Woman 2.


Time was right to bring the case - prosecutor

Defending his case against Trump, he reiterated several times that accurate business records were important, and "all the more important in Manhattan - the financial centre of the world".

He said that was why the Manhattan DA's office had a history of "vigorously enforcing white collar crime", which is how he also repeatedly characterised the allegations against Trump and Cohen.

Trump's charges were the "bread and butter" of the DA's office's work, Bragg added.

He insisted it was a "thorough and rigorous" investigation and pointed to his 24 years of experience. Defending the timing, he said the case was brought now because it was ready to be brought.


Trump and Cohen 'agreed catch and kill scheme'

Donald Trump, executives at American Media Inc (the company which owned tabloid newspaper the National Enquirer), Michael Cohen and others agreed to a "catch and kill" scheme in 2015, Bragg alleges.

He said it was a scheme to buy and supresses negative information to help Trump's chances of winning the election.

Trump and others made three payments to people who claimed to have negative information about him, Bragg alleges.

He says one of the people paid was Stormy Daniels.

A reminder that Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him and has decried the case as political persecution by Democratic prosecutors.


Payments to Cohen were clearly illegal - Bragg

Bragg says the payments recorded by Donald Trump were clearly illegal.

He says:

Quote Message: He could not simply say that the payments were a reimbursment for Mr Cohen's payments to Stormy Daniels. To make that true statement would have been to admit a crime. So instead Mr Trump said he was paying Mr Cohen for fictitious legal services in 2017 to cover up actual crime committed the prior year."

He says in order to make sure Mr Cohen got all of his money back, they had a "final scheme" - to have Cohen declare the payments as income to tax authorities in New York.


Post update

More now from Bragg.

He says Trump claimed he was paying Michael Cohen for legal services in 2016.

"This simply was not true", Bragg says.

He goes on to say this was a false statement Trump made month after month in 2017.

"For nine straight months, the defendant held documents in his hand containing this key lie," he adds.

He said Trump signed cheques for Cohen over each of the nine months.

Bragg says Trump made these false statements to cover up crimes related to the 2016 election.

Remember, Michael Cohen is the former Trump lawyer who has admitted paying porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 (£100,000) before the 2016 election in exchange for her silence on an alleged past sexual relationship with Trump, which he denies.


We will not normalise serious criminal conduct - Bragg

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is speaking now.

Bragg says this case is about 34 false statements made to cover up other crimes.

"These are felony crimes in New York State no matter who you are. We can not and will not normalise serious criminal conduct," Bragg says.

He says Trump repeatedly made false statements on New York business records and caused others to make false statements.

He claimed he was paying Michael Cohen for legal services, Bragg says. He says plainly that "this was not true".


'The rule of law died in this country' - Trump attorney


Speaking to reporters outside the court, attorney Todd Blanche said the judge requested everyone involved in the case to not use language that would incite violence - not just Trump.

Joe Tacopina, another one of Trump's lawyers, said the unsealing of the indictment showed "that the rule of law died in this country".

"While everyone is not above the law, no one is below it either. And if this man's name was not Donald J Trump, there is no scenario we'd all be here today," he added.

They declined to comment on whether Trump was fingerprinted or had a mugshot taken when being processed.


In the courtroom: How it ended after 57 minutes


Donald Trump is now leaving New York but here's a bit more of what I saw in the courtroom earlier.

The judge brought proceedings to a close after nearly an hour. When it was over, Trump stood up and was immediately surrounded by his Secret Service detail.

The former president then spoke quietly to his lawyers, but he was inaudible to the press sitting a few rows behind him. Then he turned and walked down the centre aisle of the courtroom, and out of the the rear door he had first entered.

He said nothing to the press. His expression was serious.


Trump leaving New York

Donald Trump is on his private plane at New York's La Guardia airport on his way back to his home in Florida.

We are expecting him to speak at his Mar-a-Lago estate at 20:15 local time (01:15 BST).


In the courtroom: Trump's social media posts mentioned


At one point the judge reminded the former president- respectfully but also firmly - that if he or any defendant behaved in an unruly or disruptive manner, they might lose the right to be present at their trial.

At another point, as they were making their arguments, prosecutors mentioned that that the defendant - Donald Trump - "has made threatening posts on social media”.

They referenced social media posts from Trump including one that warned of potential "death and destruction" if he faced criminal charges.

The prosecution said they were of concern in these proceedings.


What to know about the charges

Here is more about what's in the 34-count indictment:

  • The court filing says the former president "with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof, made and caused a false entry in the business records of an enterprise"
  • The charges against Trump are all Class E felonies. That is the lowest category of felony offence in New York and carries a maximum prison sentence of four years per count
  • Falsifying business records is usually prosecuted as a misdemeanour
  • The Manhattan district attorney's office is escalating the charge by alleging the offence was committed in order to conceal or commit another crime
  • Trump has pleaded not guilty on all the charges

In the courtroom: Trump expressionless in sober hearing

Shortly after 14:30 local time, Donald Trump walked into the courtroom escorted by several secret service members. His face was expressionless and his steps were heavy and slow.

He sat in the front row for proceedings. It was short of fireworks, and was very official. There was no circus-like atmosphere.

The judge presided in a calm and even tone and never raised his voice. He spoke politely and calmly and firmly to Donald Trump, making sure the former president understood his rights.

Trump sat silently throughout almost the entire proceedings. He only spoke when he was required to, either by pleading not guilty or by answering to the judge when addressed directly.


Trump repeatedly falsified business records - prosecutor

As we just reported, the 34-count indictment of Donald Trump has been released by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

He accuses Trump of repeatedly falsifying business records to conceal crimes. Trump has pleaded not guilty on all charges.

Bragg said:

Quote Message: The People of the State of New York allege that Donald J. Trump repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal crimes that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election."

Quote Message: Manhattan is home to the country’s most significant business market. We cannot allow New York businesses to manipulate their records to cover up criminal conduct.

Quote Message: As the Statement of Facts describes, the trail of money and lies exposes a pattern that, the People allege, violates one of New York’s basic and fundamental business laws."


BreakingNo gag order placed on Trump

We're just now getting more details from our reporter who was in the courtroom.

The judge has not placed a gag order on Donald Trump but warned him that the issue would be revisited if the ex-president continued with his heated rhetoric about the case.

A gag order would have prohibited Trump, his attorneys, other parties and witnesses from speaking about the case publicly.

It usually happens when there's a risk that statements could be made that could incite violence or be viewed as threatening to prosecutors or witnesses.

Violating a gag order means you can be found to be in criminal contempt of court.

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