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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump pleads not guilty to 34 felony counts

By Jonah E. Bromwich, William K. Rashbaum, Ben Protess and Maggie Haberman

Manhattan prosecutors on Tuesday accused Donald Trump of covering up a potential sex scandal during the 2016 presidential campaign, unveiling 34 felony charges that open a perilous chapter in the long public life of the billionaire businessman who rose to the presidency and now faces the prospect of a shameful criminal trial.

Trump was indicted last week for orchestrating a scheme to influence the 2016 presidential election through hush money to a porn star — becoming the first former American president to face criminal charges.

He surrendered to authorities in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon and later appeared before a judge for his arraignment, where he entered a not guilty plea, a surreal scene for a man who once occupied the Oval Office and is mounting a third run for the White House.

In a remarkable spectacle playing out before a divided nation, Trump’s 11-vehicle motorcade arrived just before 1:30 p.m. at the district attorney’s office, part of the towering Manhattan Criminal Courts Building. While in custody, he was fingerprinted like any felony defendant, but special accommodations were made for the former president: He spent only a short time in custody, and he was not expected to be handcuffed or have his mug shot taken.

When Trump, visibly angry, entered the courtroom, he was accompanied by his legal adviser, Boris Epshteyn, and the lawyers handling this case, Todd W. Blanche, Susan R. Necheles and Joseph Tacopina. Trump declined to speak, despite aides indicating that he might.

The case, brought by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, charges the former president with 34 counts of filing false business records in the first degree, a low level felony that carries a maximum of four years in prison for each count, though if he is convicted a judge could sentence him to probation.

Amid fears of protests and Trump-inspired threats, the day’s events will be highly choreographed by the Secret Service, the New York City Police Department, court security and the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which has been investigating Trump for nearly five years. As helicopters circled overhead, the streets outside the courthouse were crammed with the press corps and hundreds of demonstrators, with supporters and critics of the former president assembling at a nearby park, where they screamed at each other from across metal barricades placed to keep the peace.

The case against Trump stems from three hush money deals. One of them involved the National Enquirer, a longtime ally of Trump, paying $30,000 to a former Trump Tower doorman, who claimed to know that Trump fathered a child out of wedlock.

The tabloid made another payment to Karen McDougal, Playboy’s playmate of the year in 1998, who wanted to sell her story of an affair with Trump during the 2016 campaign. She reached a $150,000 agreement with the National Enquirer, which bought the rights to her story to suppress it, a practice known as “catch and kill.”

The final payoff, which is the focus of the indictment, involved a $130,000 deal between Trump’s fixer, Michael D. Cohen, and a porn star in the final days of the campaign. The payment, which Cohen said he made at Trump’s direction, ensured the porn star, Stormy Daniels, would not go public with her story of a sexual liaison with Trump.

While serving as the commander in chief, Trump reimbursed Cohen, and that’s where the fraud kicked in, prosecutors say. In internal records, Trump’s company falsely classified the repayment to Cohen as legal expenses, citing a retainer agreement. Yet there were no such expenses, the prosecutors say, and the retainer agreement was fictional as well.

The case might mark only the beginning of Trump’s journey through the criminal justice system. He faces three other criminal investigations related to accusations of undermining an election and mishandling sensitive government records, issues at the core of American democracy and security.

But it is perhaps unsurprising, given the crass and circuslike political era that Trump’s election ushered in — one marked by the elevation of D-list celebrities, uncouth social media posts and a casual relationship with the truth — that his first indictment stems from lies about a tryst with a porn star.

“The trail of money and lies exposes a pattern that, the People allege, violates one of New York’s basic and fundamental business laws,” Bragg said in a statement. “As this office has done time and time again, we today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law.”

For Bragg, a Democrat, a conviction is no sure thing. The falsifying business records charges appear to hinge on a novel application of the law.

And Trump has denied all wrongdoing — as well as any sexual encounter with Daniels — and has lashed out at Bragg with threatening and at times racist language, calling the district attorney, who is Black, an “animal” and summoning his followers to “PROTEST” his arrest. His rhetoric has been reminiscent of his posts in the run-up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

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