NEW YORK, April 5 — Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts inside a packed New York courtroom yesterday, in a dramatic hearing that transfixed the nation and began the countdown to the first ever criminal trial of an American president.
After a stern glare to waiting press, Trump spent about an hour inside a Manhattan courtroom where he voluntarily surrendered to face charges over hush money payments that have already upended the 2024 White House race in which he leads the Republican field.
“Not guilty,” the 76-year-old former president 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. He was released from custody without any restrictions.
Posting on his Truth Social app as he flew back to his Florida estate, Trump confirmed he would be delivering remarks at 8:15pm (0015 GMT Wednesday) — and slammed the hearing as “shocking.”
“Virtually every legal pundit has said that there is no case here,” he wrote. “There was nothing done illegally.”
The real estate tycoon is accused of falsifying business records including some that were allegedly mischaracterised for tax purposes.
Judge Juan Merchan said a trial could potentially start as soon as January — a month before the presidential primaries kick off — although Trump’s lawyers want any trial pushed back to next spring.
“We today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law,” Manhattan’s District Attorney Alvin Bragg — an elected Democrat who has faced heated attacks from Trump and his family — told reporters.
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 twice-impeached Republican is the first sitting or former American president to be criminally indicted.
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 television coverage although cameras were not allowed for the hearing itself.
The former president is believed to have been fingerprinted before the hearing — but was not subjected to a “perp walk,” in which a defendant is escorted in handcuffs past cameras.
Trump claims he is the victim of “political persecution” — but is also using the case to energise supporters and raise millions of dollars for his new White House bid.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the venue, with pro-Trump protesters — sporting “MAGA” hats and attire emblazoned with the American flag — yelling slurs at their opponents.
The anti-Trump camp unfurled a 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
The most famous charges against Trump revolve around the investigation of US$130,000 (RM573,000) paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels just days before Trump’s election win.
Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, who has turned against his ex-boss, says he arranged the payment in exchange for silence about a tryst Daniels says she had with Trump in 2006.
Trump for years rejoiced in his reputation as a playboy but he denied the affair with Daniels, which would have occurred just after his third wife Melania gave birth.
Prosecutors also faulted Trump over a US$30,000 payment made to keep quiet a doorman at Trump Tower over allegations the former president had a child out of wedlock.
A final case involved a woman who received US$150,000 from a US tabloid in exchange for silence about an alleged sexual relationship with Trump.
Trump is facing a series of separate criminal investigations at 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.
While Republicans have largely rallied around Trump, President Joe Biden — mindful of Trump’s accusations the judicial system is being politically “weaponised” — has been holding back over the indictment of his rival.
Biden’s spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said the Democrat would “catch part of the news when he has a moment,” insisting: “This is not something that’s a focus for him.” — AFP