Prosecutors described a pattern of payments made in hopes of avoiding scandals.
Manhattan prosecutors on Tuesday accused Donald J. Trump of covering up a potential sex scandal during the 2016 presidential campaign, unveiling 34 felony charges that open a perilous chapter in the long public life of the real estate mogul who rose to the presidency and now faces the embarrassing prospect of a criminal trial.
Mr. Trump was indicted last week on charges connected to a hush money payment to a porn star — becoming the first former American president to face criminal charges.
He surrendered to the Manhattan district attorney’s office on Tuesday afternoon and later appeared before a judge for his arraignment, where he entered a not guilty plea — a surreal scene for a man who once occupied the Oval Office and is mounting a third run for the White House.
In a remarkable spectacle playing out before a divided nation, Mr. Trump’s 11-vehicle motorcade arrived just before 1:30 at the district attorney’s office, part of the towering Manhattan Criminal Courts Building. While in custody, he was fingerprinted like any felony defendant, but special accommodations were made for the former president: He spent only a short time in custody, and he was not handcuffed and did not have his mug shot taken.
Mr. Trump was visibly angry as he walked down the hallway toward the courtroom. He was accompanied by his legal adviser, Boris Epshteyn, and the lawyers handling this case, Todd W. Blanche, Susan R. Necheles and Joseph Tacopina. Mr. Trump declined to speak before or after the hearing, and immediately left to fly back to his home in Florida.
Mr. Blanche, speaking outside the courthouse after the arraignment, said the former president was upset over the charges but determined to prevail. “He’s frustrated. He’s upset. But I will tell you what. He is motivated. It’s not going to slow him down,” he said.
Amid fears of protests and Trump-inspired threats, the events at the courthouse were highly choreographed by the Secret Service, the New York City Police Department, court security and the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which has been investigating Mr. Trump for nearly five years. As helicopters circled overhead, the streets outside the courthouse were crammed with the press corps and hundreds of demonstrators, with supporters and critics of the former president assembling at a nearby park, where they screamed at each other from across metal barricades placed to keep the peace.
The case, brought by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, charges the former president with 34 counts of filing false business records in the first degree, a low-level felony that carries a maximum of four years in prison for each count, though if he is convicted a judge could sentence him to probation.
While the charges focus on the payoff to the porn star, Stormy Daniels, Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors also accused the former president of orchestrating a broader scheme to influence the 2016 presidential election by purchasing damaging stories about him to keep it under wraps.
Along with the indictment, which is focused on the payoff to Ms. Daniels, the prosecutors filed a so-called statement of facts. That document, which is common in complex white-collar cases, provides something of a road map for what the prosecutors could reveal at trial. And based on evidence presented to the grand jury, it details two other hush-money deals involving the National Enquirer, which has longstanding ties to Mr. Trump.
The first deal involved the tabloid paying $30,000 to a former Trump Tower doorman who claimed to know that Mr. Trump fathered a child out of wedlock. The publication later determined the claim was untrue.
The National Enquirer then made another payment to Karen McDougal, Playboy’s playmate of the year in 1998, who wanted to sell her story of an affair with Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign. She reached a $150,000 agreement with the National Enquirer, which bought the rights to her story to suppress it — a practice known as “catch and kill.”
The final payoff, which is the focus of the indictment, involved a $130,000 deal between Mr. Trump’s fixer, Michael D. Cohen, and Ms. Daniels in the final days of the campaign. The payment, which Mr. Cohen said he made at Mr. Trump’s direction, ensured that Ms. Daniels would not go public with her story of a sexual liaison with Mr. Trump.
While serving as the commander in chief, Mr. Trump reimbursed Mr. Cohen, and that’s where the fraud kicked in, prosecutors say. In internal records, Mr. Trump’s company falsely classified the repayment to Mr. Cohen as legal expenses, citing a retainer agreement. Yet there were no such expenses, the prosecutors say, and the retainer agreement was fictional as well.
The case might mark only the beginning of Mr. Trump’s journey through the criminal justice system. He faces three other criminal investigations related to accusations of undermining an election and mishandling sensitive government records, issues at the core of American democracy and security.
But it is perhaps unsurprising, given the crass and circuslike political era that Mr. Trump’s election ushered in — one marked by the elevation of D-list celebrities, uncouth social media posts and a casual relationship with the truth — that his first indictment stems from lies about a tryst with a porn star.
“Everyone stands equal under the law,” Mr. Bragg said at a press conference after the arraignment. “No amount of money and no amount of power” changes that, he added.
For Mr. Bragg, a Democrat, a conviction is no sure thing. The falsifying business records charges appear to hinge on a novel application of the law.
And Mr. Trump has denied all wrongdoing — as well as any sexual encounter with Ms. Daniels — and has lashed out at Mr. Bragg with threatening and at times racist language, calling the district attorney, who is Black, an “animal” and summoning his followers to “PROTEST” his arrest. His rhetoric has been reminiscent of his posts in the run-up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Some of Mr. Trump’s supporters in recent days predicted that the judge presiding over the case, Juan M. Merchan, would issue a gag order and criticized him in advance. But Justice Merchan was quick to make clear that he had no intention of doing so, saying “Certainly the court would not impose a gag order,” even had prosecutors requested it, which they did not.
Mr. Blanche complained about the publicity in the case and attributed it to leaks, contending that they had frustrated the former president.
“I don’t share your view that certain language and certain rhetoric is justified by frustration,” the judge said, referring to Mr. Trump’s posts.
Here’s what else you need to know:
- Mr. Trump’s surrender was the culmination of a monthslong drama that first centered on the question of whether he would be indicted — and soon broadened to include predictions about how he would respond. He has alternately fretted about and blustered over the prospect of an arrest, while his aides have leveraged the indictment to ramp up fund-raising and push primary rivals into an awkward dance between criticizing prosecutors and backing Mr. Trump.
- Mr. Bragg is the first prosecutor to charge Mr. Trump, and has already entered the political spotlight, an uncomfortable position for a district attorney who has never before held elected office.
- The indictment, the product of a nearly five-year investigation, kicks off a new and volatile phase in Mr. Trump’s post-presidential life as he makes a third run for the White House. And it will throw the race for the Republican nomination — which he leads in most polls — into uncharted territory.
- Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers had been under the belief that he would be charged with both misdemeanors and felonies, and they were jolted by reports that he would instead be facing dozens of felony counts.
- Mr. Trump has spent nearly a half-century fending off criminal charges. He was first investigated in New York in the late 1970s, an episode that set the tone for how he dealt with prosecutors for decades.
- Federal prosecutors are separately scrutinizing Mr. Trump for his actions surrounding his electoral defeat and his handling of sensitive documents. And a Georgia prosecutor is in the final stages of an investigation into Mr. Trump’s attempts to reverse the election results in that state.
- Mr. Cohen, who broke from Mr. Trump in 2018 after the hush-money deal came to light, is the prosecution’s star witness. He pleaded guilty to federal crimes involving the hush money and served more than a year in prison, which Mr. Trump’s lawyers will likely use to attack his credibility.
- Mr. Trump’s allies have been heavily focused on the idea that he could face a gag order, something his advisers are also aware is a possibility after his broadsides against Mr. Bragg, who pushed for indictment, and Justice Juan Merchan, who is presiding over the case. There is no indication so far that the judge plans to do so.
- Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Georgia Republican who is closely aligned with Mr. Trump, held a rally at the park across from the courthouse. Speaking through a megaphone, she denounced the Democratic Party, though her words were often drowned out by protesters — and counterprotesters — blowing whistles and chanting. After speaking for about five minutes, she was ushered out of the park by the police.