Largely consistent with original anonymously sourced accounts, the 34-count indictment charges former President Donald Trump with falsifying business records related to payoffs to and compensation for hush money to pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels.
Shortly after his attorneys entered, Trump plodded into court, stayed mostly still in his seat and said little. When prompted, he delivered the plea himself in a gravely voice: “Not guilty.”
With that, an unusual arraignment began, and not only because the defendant was a former president of the United States. Typically formal and brief, the proceedings often begin with a clerk reciting the charges and a plea. Scheduling matters usually follow. Fireworks rarely launch.
This arraignment stretched on for roughly an hour, with recriminations from prosecutors and defense counsel — and a warning from the judge.
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy launched into a spirited defense of the historic case, telling the court that grand jury of “diligent and thoughtful New Yorkers who did their civic duty, listened to the evidence and carefully considered the charges.”
Trump praised the grand jury days before the indictment and has been calling their charges a political persecution ever since. Prosecutors revealed those charges for the first time on Tuesday, and they were mostly how they’ve been publicly reported.
“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,” Conroy said.
Conroy then laid out the mechanics of the scheme, in broad strokes.
The $130,000 that Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen funneled to Daniels wasn’t a simple check.
In the weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Cohen took out a home equity line of credit from First Republic Bank and steered it through his then-newly formed shell company Essential Consultants LLC, which in turn paid Daniels’ lawyer Keith Davidson, according to federal records. Federal prosecutors said that Trump Organization executives devised an equally convoluted system of making Cohen whole: Cohen tacked on $60,000 for “tech services” and an equivalent amount for a bonus, then the Trump Organization grossed up that amount to $420,000, paid out in monthly intervals of $35,000. The difference accounted for what Cohen would have to pay in taxes on the original payment.
“After the election, defendant reimbursed the lawyer through a series of disguised monthly payments that hid the true nature of the payoff by causing a series of false business records in the records of the Trump Organization here in Manhattan, and even mischaracterized for tax purposes the true nature of the payment,” Conroy said.
Though Trump hasn’t been charged with tax crimes, the falsifying business records charge only becomes a felony of prosecutors prove an “intent to defraud” in the commission of another crime. Election law violations or tax offenses could fit that bill.
For Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche, who previous represented the former president’s ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort, the assistant DA’s speech was an example of unfairness to his client.
“I didn’t realize we were going to give opening statements today,” Blanche said with heavy sarcasm. He called it inappropriate at this point for prosecutors to boast about the “strength of their case.”
Blanche rattled off a list of grievances, including leaks to the media and makeshift press conferences by Cohen outside of the courthouse.
“It is true that President Trump has responded, and responded forcefully,” he said. “It is true that as part of that response, he’s absolutely frustrated, upset, and believes that there is a grave injustice happening with him being in this courtroom today.”
Trump, who looked sullen but remained mostly stolid, did more than speak forcefully. He posted an image of himself holding a baseball bat next to Bragg’s head. He predicted “potential death & destruction” if were indicted and urged his supporters to “PROTEST,” in all caps, on the date he mistakenly thought he’d be arrested.
Prosecutors handed Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan copies of Trump’s social media posts, and the judge responded with warnings to both sides, though the message to Trump was more cutting.
“Please refrain from making comments or engaging in conduct that has the potential to incite violence, create civil unrest, or jeopardize the safety or well-being of any individuals,” Merchan said.
Merchan, whom the former president attacked as a “Trump Hating Judge,” also instructed the prosecutors to hold their witnesses to account.
Trump spoke only four more words for the remainder of the hearing, politely responding “Yes” to a question and “Okay, thank you” to another. Both involved his understanding of his rights to be present.
Barely any sooner had the proceedings ended than Trump going back onto his platform Truth Social with fresh swipes at Bragg, the unsealed case and Daniels, whom he called a “Horseface.” Trump said in the posts that there were “no ‘surprises,’ and therefore, no case.”
Bragg defended his charging decision at a press conference following the arraignment
“The defendant repeatedly made false statements on business records,” the DA said. “These are felony crimes in New York state, no matter who you are. We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct.”
Under New York law, falsifying business records is a misdemeanor that only becomes a felony when an alleged violator acts “with intent to defraud” in the commission of another crime. Bragg called it the “bread and butter” of his office’s white collar crime work.
“We have charged falsifying business records for those receiving to cover up sex crimes,” he told reporters. “And we have brought this charge for those who committed tax violations. At its core, this case today is one with allegations like so many of our white-collar cases. Allegations that someone lied again and again, to protect their interests and evade the laws to which we are all held accountable.”
Prosecutors also released their account of events, known as a statement of facts, that advance the public’s knowledge of the hush money payments. Cohen produced checks signed by the former president and his son Donald Trump Jr. to Congress.
In early February 2017, Trump and Cohen met in the Oval Office to confirm this repayment arrangement, prosecutors say.
The federal investigation didn’t answer Trump’s bookkeeping for those payments, whether he was compensated by his company for them, and if so, how he reported them.
Manhattan prosecutors’ charges provide some clarity from the company’s side, saying that the Trump Organization recorded the $35,000 checks as a “legal expense.” The check stubs were allegedly falsely marked as “Retainer” payments. Trump allegedly paid nine of the checks personally.
Read the indictment, below.
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