Former United States President Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty in New York City to a string of charges linked to hush-money payments ahead of the 2016 presidential vote, including one made to an adult film star.
Trump, the first former president to be criminally prosecuted in US history, entered a Manhattan courtroom shortly before 2:30pm (18:30 GMT) on Tuesday to formally hear the accusations against him.
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The Republican leader faces 34 felony charges of falsifying New York business records “to conceal damaging information and unlawful activity from American voters before and after the 2016 election”, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said as the indictment was unsealed.
Alvin Bragg, the prosecutor overseeing the case, said the so-called “catch and kill scheme” included three payoffs, including $130,000 paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
“As this office has done time and time again, we today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law,” Bragg told reporters during a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.
“No amount of money and no amount of power changes that enduring American principle.”
Wearing a dark blue suit and red tie, Trump sat with his hands folded at the defence table on Tuesday as he entered his plea flanked by his lawyers. “Not guilty,” the 76-year-old told the Manhattan court.
He said nothing as he entered the courtroom or when he left roughly an hour later.
Trump, who is seeking re-election in 2024, has denied any wrongdoing and denounced the case as a “witch hunt”.
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL – WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America,” he posted on social media before his arrival at the Manhattan court.
His arraignment came less than a week after a New York grand jury voted to indict the former president in a move that was welcomed by Trump’s critics but set off widespread criticism from top Republicans.
The case has highlighted deep political divisions in the US and a large police presence was deployed ahead of Tuesday’s hearing amid concerns that violence could break out.
Large groups of Trump supporters and detractors joined rival protests near the court throughout the day.
Jennifer Victor, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University, told Al Jazeera that Trump’s claim that the case is politically motivated is one “his supporters tend to really believe whole-heartedly”.
“It will be [a] very polarising type of affair as this whole [case] drags out,” Victor said.
The New York investigation centred on the $130,000 payment that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, made to Daniels in the waning days of the former president’s 2016 campaign.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, said she had an affair with Trump starting in 2006. Cohen said he paid her on Trump’s orders.
The former president has denied the affair and said the payment was to protect his reputation from a false accusation, insisting that he did nothing wrong.
Meanwhile, Bragg – the New York prosecutor – said on Tuesday that a payment of $30,000 was made through an intermediary to a former Trump Tower doorman who was claiming that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock.
A final case involved a woman who received $150,000 from a US tabloid in exchange for not speaking about a sexual relationship she allegedly had with Trump.
Taken together, the charges carry a maximum sentence of more than 100 years in prison under New York law but an actual prison sentence if he is convicted at a trial would almost certainly be far less than that.
While falsifying business records in New York on its own is a misdemeanor punishable by no more than one year in prison, it is elevated to a felony punishable by up to four years in prison when done to advance or conceal another crime.
On Tuesday, Republican legislators renewed their public support for Trump, with Senator Ted Cruz saying the case makes “a mockery of the rule of law”. “Not only is the indictment frivolous, this political persecution marks a dark day for our country,” Cruz wrote on Twitter.
For their part, Democrats have said it demonstrates that “nobody is above the law”.
“A somber moment in the life of our country, when it’s necessary to arraign a former president on criminal charges,” Congressman Adam Schiff tweeted.
Bragg has repeatedly rejected recent Republican claims that the case is politically motivated as “baseless and inflammatory”.
“These are felony crimes in New York State, no matter who you are,” he said during Tuesday’s news conference. “We cannot and will not normalise serious criminal conduct.”