MANHATTAN — In news that might make someone from 2016’s head explode, the first president to be impeached twice made history again on Tuesday by becoming the first to be arraigned on criminal charges.
On Tuesday afternoon, Donald Trump shuffled into the courtroom with his lawyers and listened as prosecutors charged him with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first degree. Flanked by his attorneys on both sides, Trump entered his not guilty plea himself, leaning forward to speak into the mic.
Trump is accused of orchestrating a “catch and kill” scheme to identify and bury negative stories about himself during the 2016 election. "Trump then went to great lengths to hide this conduct, causing dozens of false entries in business records to conceal criminal activity, including attempts to violate state and federal election laws," Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office said in a news release.
During a speech Tuesday night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump said that the various investigations he's facing, including one on whether he illegally interfered in the 2020 election, were politically motivated. Trump called Bragg a "criminal" for investigating him, and he called New York Attorney General Letitia James "a racist in reverse" because her office sued him and his company for alleged financial fraud. Trump rattled off a number of lies and conspiracy theories, including that the 2020 election was stolen from him and that Bragg is controlled by George Soros.
“The only crime that I've committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it," Trump said.
The New York case against Trump centers on alleged hush money payments, including one made to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election in order to prevent her from going public with claims that she had had sex with him in 2006. Trump, who has denied the affair, initially denied knowing anything about the payment but later admitted that he reimbursed his former attorney Michael Cohen for it. Cohen later pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges and served time in prison in part for facilitating the payment.
Other charges focus on allegations that Trump and others "mischaracterized" documents regarding payments of hush money relating to claims of other affairs. The charges encompass allegations of 11 falsified invoices, 12 general ledger entries, and 11 checks.
"These are felony crimes in New York state. No matter who you are, we cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct,” Bragg added in a press conference after the arraignment.
“The district attorney has turned what is actually a political issue into a political prosecution," one of Trump's attorneys, Todd Blanche, told reporters after the arraignment. "I don’t expect this to happen in this country. You don’t expect this to happen to somebody who was the president of the United States.”
Following his indictment by a grand jury last week, Donald Trump voluntarily surrendered to authorities at the Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday. Trump arrived at the courthouse at 1:24 p.m. Eastern time, where he was formally booked and fingerprinted, although he reportedly did not have his mugshot taken. His hearing began around 2:30 p.m. in a courtroom on the 15th floor in front of Justice Juan Merchan.
Trump appeared forlorn during the proceedings, which lasted about an hour. He spoke only a handful of times, including to plead not guilty.
The surreal moment has generated an unprecedented political and media circus. Never before in history has a president — former or current — been criminally prosecuted, let alone one who is currently making another bid for the White House.
Even Trump himself seemed somewhat astonished by the developments. "Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME," he wrote on his Truth Social website on Tuesday afternoon, apparently from the car on the way to surrender at the courthouse. "Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!"
Only a handful of photographers were allowed to take photos in the courtroom Tuesday, but the arraignment itself was not televised. Merchan on Monday night denied a request from multiple media outlets to broadcast the arraignment live but acknowledged the "unparalleled public interest and media attention" in the case. Trump’s attorneys had argued that allowing video or photography of the proceedings would create a “circus-like atmosphere” and heighten the already “extraordinary security concerns.” Nevertheless, Trump reportedly traveled with his own videographer to document behind the scenes of his surrender and arraignment, per CNN's Kristen Holmes.
In preparing for what he described as a “major historical event,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams told reporters on Monday that authorities had not identified any specific threats from far-right agitators, but that police had prepared for the worst.
The city blocked off multiple streets around the Manhattan Criminal Court ahead of the arraignment on Tuesday. Early that morning, the courthouse, which has been ringed by metal fences for weeks, was the site of both protests and celebrations.
By about 9:30 a.m., the crowds outside the Manhattan courthouse began to turn tense as pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators squared off. At one point, an exchange became heated as a Trump supporter rushed a banner bearing the slogan "Trump Lies All The Time" and tried to tear it up. Police stepped in to break up the conflict.
A few prominent Trump allies also showed up on the scene to share support for the former president. Rep. George Santos of New York, who has faced down criticisms and calls for resignation after it was revealed he faked large portions of his résumé during his congressional campaign, arrived around 9:30 a.m. but quickly left the chaotic scene.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a vocal Trump ally, also arrived to lead a promised morning rally on his behalf. However, she was quickly drowned out by the crowd, which whistled, booed, cheered, and chanted. At the end of her short speech, Greene's security personnel and NYPD officers had to shove through the tightly packed crowd to escort her out.
Trump has decried the case against him as being a “witch hunt,” and his fellow Republicans have lined up to accuse the Manhattan DA of pursuing a political prosecution.
But Trump is also attempting to use the charges to his benefit. He has fundraised millions of dollars from supporters since the indictment, and he has seen himself rise in polling against other 2024 rivals as he casts himself as a political victim. There was even speculation that he might turn a mugshot into a merchandising opportunity — which his campaign promptly did on Tuesday, even though Trump did not take a mugshot in court.