Donald Trump pleads not guilty. What happens next?

Here’s all you need to know about the unprecedented case against the former US president, who faces 34 charges in New York.

Donald Trump has made his first appearance in front of a New York judge since becoming the only former president of the United States to face criminal prosecution.

Trump on Tuesday pleaded not guilty in Manhattan criminal court to 34 felony charges of falsifying business records connected to three alleged hush-money payments, including one to adult film star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump, who waved to the public before entering the courthouse, was released following an hour-long arraignment.

Here’s what to know about the legal process and what comes next.

What is the next legal step?

Tuesday’s arraignment – during which the indictment against the former Republican president was officially unsealed – kicks off what is known as “discovery”.

This refers to a period in which prosecutors grant the defence team access to the evidence investigators have collected against a defendant.

With the next hearing currently set for December 4 in the Trump case, prosecutors and the defence will also have the ability to submit a series of motions – applications for the court to make a decision on specific issues – prior to a trial.

Such motions can include a request to dismiss the charges outright; challenges to specific pieces of evidence, or efforts to change the venue or dismiss a judge, which Trump surrogates have already indicated his legal team may pursue.

“They may ask for a transfer of venue because they think that you can’t get a fair trial in Manhattan,” Matthew Galluzzo, a former prosecutor in the New York District Attorney’s office, told Al Jazeera. “This man [Trump] is very unpopular in Manhattan.”

Trump also has already claimed Judge Juan Merchan, who recently presided over a criminal tax fraud trial involving the Trump Organization, “hates” him and was “hand-picked” by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is overseeing the case.

The New York state court system has said Merchan was randomly assigned.

“I can also see a dismissal motion somehow with respect to the composition of the grand jury,” said Galluzzo, referring to the 24-member body that determined prosecutors had presented sufficient evidence to charge the former president.

“I anticipate they’re gonna make every motion they can think of to delay this thing as much as possible.”

Will Trump be able to talk about the case?

For now, yes.

US judges have the power to impose a gag order on criminal proceedings, explained former federal prosecutor Ron Filipkowski. Legal observers have said that could happen at any point in this widely-watched case.

While a gag order can have a varying scope, Filipkowski told Al Jazeera it “is basically a judge saying you can’t, directly or indirectly through third parties, threaten, harass, [or] intimidate the witnesses involved in the case, the prosecutors, the judge”.

On Tuesday, Judge Merchan warned Trump against making any statements that could further foment unrest or lead to violence against an official, but did not impose a gag order.

Such orders are relatively rare as they can be perceived to run up against constitutional freedom of speech rights.

However, they have been used in some high-profile cases, including to prevent Trump-ally Roger Stone from speaking publicly during his federal trial on charges he obstructed a federal investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Stone was originally barred from discussing the case or seeking to influence public opinion in the “immediate vicinity” of the court, but the order was broadened after Stone posted a threatening message on social media about the judge in the case.

“That’s kind of the first big controversial thing because, obviously, [Trump’s] running for president and he wants to make this an issue,” Filipkowski said. A violation would also likely lead to Trump being compelled to appear in court prior to the trial for a slap on the wrist – or more.

“We don’t know what would happen if he violates [a gag order],” Filipkowski said. “But he could be held in contempt of court, and could have his pretrial release revoked.”

How long until the case goes to trial?

While Trump could theoretically reach a plea deal with prosecutors and avoid a trial – something Galluzzo said would almost certainly require the former president to admit at least some guilt – it is widely expected that his legal team would eschew that route.

Prosecutors said they planned to ask for the trial to begin in January of next year, the Reuters news agency reported on Tuesday after Trump’s arraignment hearing, but the former president’s team suggested a spring 2024 start date.

There is no specific timeframe for the proceedings, although Galluzzo said criminal cases tend to move faster than civil cases.

“I think if this were a normal case, it’s a maybe a year, maybe shorter, maybe five months” before a trial starts, he said. “We’re all sort of sitting here wondering, ‘Is this going to happen before the election next year?'”

The judge will ultimately determine when all “legitimate reasons for delay” have been exhausted, Galluzzo said, and set a date for the trial to begin.

“I think that normally speaking, a defendant wants to delay trials,” he said. “Because witnesses become less reliable over time, memories fade … or maybe a witness goes on TV and starts saying things that undermine their own credibility.”

Supporters and critics of Donald Trump face off in New York ahead of the arraignment hearing
A Trump supporter argues with opponents outside the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in New York City on April 4, 2023 [Angela Weiss/AFP]

Will this be a jury trial?

Trump’s case will likely be a jury trial, although his defence team could potentially pursue a “bench trial”, in which the judge would serve as the jury and make the final ruling, Galluzzo said.

The prosecution would need to agree to that approach.

Otherwise, the process of jury selection would begin before a trial and prosecutors and the defence will need to agree on 12 jurors they believe to be unbiased – a tall order in such a high-profile case.

Who is expected to testify?

Observers have said the case may include headline-grabbing testimony from key players, including Daniels and Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. They will likely punctuate long stretches of sifting through reams of financial and banking documents.

A lawyer for Daniels – who has alleged she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, a claim the former president denies – tweeted in March that his client met with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and “agreed to make herself available as a witness”.

One-time Trump confidant Cohen previously testified in his own federal tax evasion and fraud trial that Trump directed him to pay Daniels $130,000 in exchange for her silence – another claim the Republican politician has rejected publicly.

The indictment also mentioned a hush-money payment to a former Trump Tower doorman, as well as a separate $150,000 payment to an unidentified woman who alleged she had a sexual relationship with Trump – a possible reference to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Meanwhile, whether Trump himself chooses to testify will also be closely watched.

newspaper saying trump indicted
A person poses with a newspaper with a picture of Trump on the cover, outside Trump Tower in New York City [File: David ‘Dee’ Delgado/Reuters]

How long will it take to get a verdict?

When both the prosecution and defence rest, the jury will deliberate and deliver a verdict. Their deliberations can range from a few hours to a few weeks.

If found guilty, Trump could theoretically be ordered to be held in custody before sentencing, although that will likely be based on the severity of the recommended sentence. A judge will ultimately make a sentencing decision and Trump’s team could then launch an appeal.

If the sentence involves jail time, under New York state law, the defence could request the punishment be stayed – or frozen – until the appeals process is exhausted.

Will this affect the 2024 presidential elections?

Trump, who is seeking re-election in 2024, will be legally required to be present during the trial proceedings, even if the hearings fall in the heat of the presidential campaign season.

“I’m thinking it’s going to be like a three to four-week trial,” Filipkowski said. “Trump could be in a courtroom every day for a month while he’s running for president.”

And while the proceedings or possible imprisonment may impede Trump’s campaign, as a natural-born US citizen over the age of 35, Trump will be eligible to run for and be elected president of the US even if found guilty of felony charges.

Source: Al Jazeera