Donald Trump Smashes Previous Presidential Record of Zero Felony Indictments
Donald Trump made history over and over on Tuesday afternoon. The first president ever indicted became the first to be arrested, the first arraigned, and the first to plead not guilty to 34 separate felony counts of falsifying business records in a Manhattan courtroom. By Tuesday night, he was back to his day job: running to be, again, the president of the United States — a campaign that will now be conducted by a man fighting for his freedom in court.
Trump’s arrest comes fives days after a grand jury voted to indict him last Thursday on a slew of charges related to allegations that he arranged a hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election, and then fraudulently tried to conceal it.
Trump flew from Mar-a-Lago to New York City on Monday in preparation for his arrest, and waved at supporters upon exiting the motorcade to enter the courthouse on Tuesday. “Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse,” Trump posted to Truth Social before arriving. “Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
Rolling Stone reported on Monday that Trump wanted to turn his booking into a spectacle, opting for it to happen in Manhattan in the middle of the day rather than at night or by video. He also wanted a perp walk. “It’s kind of a Jesus Christ thing,” said one source close to Trump’s legal team. “He is saying, ‘I’m absorbing all this pain from all around from everywhere so you don’t have to.’”
The optics, however, were not great. Trump was visible to the public for on a few seconds as he walked from the car into the courthouse, and he wore an exhausted expression throughout his arraignment, which began around 2:30 p.m. ET. He was flanked by his legal team, including Joe Tacopina, Susan Necheles, and recent addition Todd Blanche. The prosecution did not ask for a gag order to be placed on Trump, and Judge Juan Merchan said he would not have granted one if they had. Merchan, whom Trump attacked on Truth Social ahead of the arrest, warned both sides about incendiary social media activity. “I would encourage counsel on both sides … to avoid making statements that incite violence or create civil unrest,” he said.
The arrest took place amid a tense scene outside the courthouse, with Trump supporters and opponents converging to demonstrate earlier on Tuesday. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) fled her own protest as anti-Trump demonstrators shouted her down as she tried to speak through a megaphone. The frenzy had subsided by the time Trump surrendered, although scores of media, law enforcement, and onlookers remained in the area as the arraignment carried into the late afternoon.
Trump ultimately pleaded not guilty himself, rather than through his lawyers. He took off back to Florida barely an hour after he left the courtroom, and hours later delivered a bizarre address from Mar-a-Lago hours later in which he struggled to defend himself against multiple still-in-progress investigations that could results in more indictments against the former president.
The Trump indictment revives the controversy over his effort, in the waning days of the 2016 presidential race, to quash disclosure of an alleged affair with Daniels that began during a 2006 celebrity golf tournament and lasted into 2007. Trump’s efforts to reimburse his then-attorney, Michael Cohen, for the payment to Daniels as part of a bogus retainer agreement constituted felony falsification of business records, prosecutors allege.
The incident has already produced a criminal conviction. Cohen pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws in 2018 for making the payment to Daniels through a Delaware shell corporation, “Essential Consultants,” shortly before the election. Cohen said he made the $130,000 payment, financed by an equity loan on his own home, to spare the campaign — already rocked by the release of the Access Hollywood tape — another tawdry scandal in the final stretch of the presidential race. The Trump Organization repaid and rewarded Cohen with a monthly retainer of $35,000, ultimately totaling $420,000, which it booked as legal expenses.
The 16-page indictment against Trump was made public soon after he left the courthouse. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office also released a 13-page Statement of Facts summarizing the case. “We allege Donald Trump and his associates repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal damaging information and unlawful activity from American voters,” his office wrote. Bragg spoke to the media later on Tuesday. “These are felony crimes in New York state no matter who you are,” he said. “We cannot and will not normalize serious criminal conduct.”
The indictment and Statement of Facts paints Trump as in command of the scheme to pay off Daniels. It even alleges Trump duplicitously sought to delay payment in hopes of pushing past Election Day and reneging on the deal with Daniels “because at that point it would not matter if the story became public.”
The document alleges that Cohen, before making the payout, “confirmed with the Defendant [Trump] that Defendant would pay him back.” And it describes how Trump and Cohen “met in the Oval Office” in Feb. 2017 to confirm the fraudulent “repayment arrangement.”
The Trump Organization put Cohen on retainer, booked as legal work, but the Statement of Facts underscores that Cohen “was not being paid for legal services” and that Trump himself “caused his entities’ business records to be falsified to disguise his and others’ criminal conduct.”
Trump has long tried to skirt accountability for the payment. He has insisted publicly that he did not have an affair with Daniels, that he had no knowledge of any payment, and that he never directed Cohen to do anything illegal. Trump appointees in the Justice Department attempted to remove references to the president’s role from court documents prepared for the Cohen criminal case, according to a memoir by the former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. Attorney General Bill Barr even pressured prosecutors on the case and ordered DOJ officials to write a memo with potential challenges to it, despite Cohen’s guilty plea and sentencing.
The case appeared to be dead. A federal investigation into the matter reportedly stalled out in early 2021, but the election of Bragg as Manhattan DA in November of that year set in motion a new examination of the facts under New York law. Early this year, Bragg impaneled a grand jury and began presenting evidence that led to the former president’s indictment. “I bring cases when they’re ready,” Bragg explained on Tuesday. “Having now conducted a rigorous, thorough investigation, the case was ready to be brought. And it was brought.”
Trump wasted no attacking Bragg as news of the looming indictment began to break. On his Truth Social account, he has blasted the “CORRUPT & HIGHLY POLITICAL MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEYS OFFICE … WHOSE LEADER IS FUNDED BY GEORGE SOROS” for pursuing charges he claimed were based on “AN OLD & FULLY DEBUNKED (BY NUMEROUS OTHER PROSECUTORS!) FAIRYTALE.” (The liberal financier George Soros — a favorite bogeyman of the right — gave money to Color Of Change PAC, a progressive group that backed Bragg’s 2021 campaign.)
The night before his arrest, Trump railed on Truth Social that Bragg should “INDICT HIMSELF.” He continued ranting on social media Tuesday morning, and again after he left the courthouse. Trump’s social media posts in the run-up to his arrest have included suggestions that violence may be the only way to defend him, and a warning of “death & destruction” if he were to be indicted. He also posted and deleted an image of himself brandishing a baseball bat next to an image of Bragg, who has received at least one death threat since Trump put him in the crosshairs.
Trump’s constant appeals to the court of public opinion are part of a strategy of using the infamy of his indictment to galvanize his political followers. It seems to be working. Republican politicians have defended him en masse, his polling numbers reached new highs over the weekend, and on Monday his team bragged of having raised $7 million in the wake of the indictment. Rolling Stone reported later on Monday that his team was ready to put his mugshot on merchandise. They did so on Tuesday, albeit with a fake image that made Trump look 6’5″.
It’s unclear yet how Trump will respond, legally, to the charges but he has already hinted at a few strategies to contest the case against him. He has claimed on Truth Social that he “relied on counsel in order to resolve this Extortion of me,” a signal that his legal strategy may once again include an “advice of counsel” defense. The defense, which Trump first suggested in 2018, holds that he lacked the intent to commit a crime because his actions were the result of a good faith reliance on the advice of his attorney, Cohen.
Rolling Stone reported last month that some Trump advisers have urged him to attempt to convince a jury that the effort to buy Daniels’ silence was primarily about sparing Trump’s marriage the embarrassment of an alleged affair rather than protecting his campaign. Rolling Stone has also reported — perhaps not unrelated — that Trump’s legal team has told him to prepare to lose the case, and that an appeal will be necessary.
Regardless of his approach to the charges in New York, Bragg’s bold move to bring them may open the legal floodgates against the former president. He is also currently under investigation in Georgia for alleged criminal 2020 election interference, as well as by a federal special prosecutor who is probing Trump’s mishandling of classified documents and his actions in the run-up to the insurrection of Jan. 6.
Victoria Bekiempis and Adam Rawnsley contributed to this report.
Contributors: Adam Rawnsley