Donald Trump on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts inside a packed New York courtroom ahead of a trial that could begin as soon as January, as he became the first American president to be arrested on criminal charges.
After a stern glare to the waiting press, Trump spent about an hour inside a Manhattan courtroom as he voluntarily surrendered over allegations involving hush money payments that have already upended the 2024 White House race in which he is leading the Republican field.
“Not guilty,” Trump said in a clear voice inside the courtroom, where he sat with his shoulders up to his ears, at times looking annoyed but mostly listening cooperatively.
Trump denied all the charges, which related to payments to keep people quiet including over an alleged affair with an adult film actress.
The 76-year-old hotel tycoon is accused of falsifying business records including some that were allegedly mischaracterised for tax purposes.
“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,” said Manhattan’s District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who has faced heated attacks from Trump and his family.
The trial could potentially start as soon as January, Judge Juan Merchan said, meaning that Trump could be in a courtroom just as primary elections begin in the presidential race.
Trump’s lawyers, denouncing the allegations as “sad” and “boilerplate,” want the trial pushed back to the spring.
“We’re going to fight it, we’re going to fight it hard,” attorney Todd Blanche said outside the court complex.
Merchan released the former president from custody without any restrictions.
Trump was expected to speak at length later including at a campaign-style event after the native New Yorker flies back to his estate in Florida.
In a spectacle that played out on live television — with rival protesters rallying outside — the hearing marked a watershed moment for the US criminal and political system the year before the 2024 election.
“Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME,” Trump posted on his Truth Social app as he headed to the courthouse from Trump Tower, where he spent the night before the hearing.
First indicted president
The twice-impeached Republican is the first sitting or former American president to be criminally indicted — a development that has propelled the United States into uncharted political waters.
Police lined the streets while helicopters buzzed in the skies as Trump’s motorcade made the short drive to court, a journey given wall-to-wall live coverage on US networks although cameras were not allowed for the hearing
Trump was not subjected to a “perp walk” — in which a defendant is escorted in handcuffs past media cameras.
But the former president was believed to have undergone the standard booking procedure of being fingerprinted.
Trump claims he is the victim of “political persecution” — but is also using the court case to energize his support base and raise millions of dollars for his bid to reclaim the White House.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the venue — both of Trump supporters and anti-Trump demonstrators, as well as media and curious onlookers.
Police stepped into the fray as the pro-Trump side — many sporting “MAGA” hats and attire emblazoned with the American flag — yelled slurs at counterprotesters.
The anti-Trump camp unfurled a large banner reading “Trump lies all the time” and chanted “Lock him up!” as Trump fans waved a flag with the slogan “Trump or Death.”
Payment before election
<span;>The most famous charges against Trump revolve around the investigation of $130,000 paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels just days before Trump’s election win.
Trump’s former lawyer and aide Michael Cohen, who has turned against his ex-boss, says he arranged the payment to Daniels in exchange for her silence about a tryst she says she had with Trump in 2006.
Trump, whose third wife Melania had recently given birth at the time, denies the affair.
Prosecutors also faulted Trump over a $30,000 payment made by the owner of a tabloid to keep quiet a doorman at Trump Tower over allegations that the former president had a child out of wedlock.
Trump is facing a series of separate criminal investigations at the state and federal level that could result in further — more serious — charges between now and Election Day.
They include his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state of Georgia, his handling of classified documents, and his possible involvement in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
President Joe Biden, mindful that anything he might say could fuel Trump’s claim of a politically “weaponized” judicial system, is one of the few Democrats holding back over the indictment of his rival.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden would “catch part of the news when he has a moment,” but insisted: “This is not something that’s a focus for him.”
Republicans meanwhile have largely rallied around Trump, including his rival in the party’s presidential primary, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who called the indictment “un-American.