Former US President Donald Trump pleaded “not guilty” to all the felony charges against him during his court appearance yesterday in Manhattan, New York City. Notorious for his social media posts, which were earlier linked with violent agitation by his supporters, Trump was warned by the presiding judge against online utterances that could lead to another round of civil unrest in the current situation.
The crowd outside the courthouse consisted of both pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators. Trump, who lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, plans to run again in 2024, and the current indictment hinders his prospects. The crowds had gathered since morning, but the pro-Trump demonstration on Tuesday was reportedly quite lukewarm, in stark contrast to the unprecedented violence at Capitol Hill, Washington DC, in January 2021, following his defeat.
The former president was reportedly warned by Manhattan criminal court Judge Juan Merchan against putting out rhetoric that could “jeopardise” the rule of law. It is widely believed that Trump’s tweets following his election loss had led to the mob frenzy among his supporters. Recently, in the run-up to his arraignment, the former head of state has been making statements that have been described as “incendiary” in some media reports. Judge Merchan, therefore, reportedly urged Trump to “refrain” from “comments that have potential to incite violence, create civil unrest [or] jeopardise the state or well-being of any individuals”.
Trump flew back to Mar-A-Lago, Florida, after his arraignment, with a public address scheduled for 8.15pm EDT. He made no media statement before or after his court appearance. However, he did go online after entering his “not guilty” plea, and posted on his Truth Social account that there was “no case” and “there was nothing done illegally”. Before the arraignment, he had launched racist attacks against Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney in charge of the case. He had also predicted “death and destruction” if he were to be indicted.
There are 34 charges against Trump related to falsifying business records; the spotlight has mostly been on his alleged payoff to Stormy Daniels, an adult movie star. Summarising the charges, The Guardian reported: “The charges, according to the felony indictment unsealed on Tuesday, stem from payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels, who said she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, as well as hush money deals made with Playboy model Karen McDougal, who wanted to sell her story of an affair with Trump ahead of the 2016 election, and a former Trump Tower doorman, who claimed Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock. Trump has denied the sexual encounters and any wrongdoing, casting himself as the victim of a political ‘witch-hunt’.”
Daniels has claimed that shortly before the 2016 presidential election, she was paid USD130,000 to remain silent about the night in July 2006 when she and Trump had sex. The charges that Trump now faces are related not so much to payment itself, but to the way his business records were falsified to hide the payoff, which was made by Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen.
A press release from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office alleged that Trump used “catch and kill” schemes — when money is paid to buy off a negative story — before and after the 2016 presidential election, and that he “went to great lengths to hide this conduct, causing dozens of false entries in business records to conceal criminal activity”.
The payoff came to light in 2018, when the Wall Street Journal published an article about it, making it the first public acknowledgment of the scheme by Trump’s team. Daniels has also said that she was threatened because she had given an interview in 2011 about her night with Trump — the interview was never published because the media house allegedly got a lawsuit threat from Cohen. The lawyer has since been sentenced to prison in connection with financial wrongdoings.