Former President Donald J. Trump has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges brought against him by a Manhattan Supreme Court grand jury. Trump became the first former president to face criminal charges as he surrendered to New York City law enforcement Tuesday to be arraigned before state Justice Juan M. Merchan.

Prosecutors from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr. unsealed the indictment and read publicly the 34 criminal charges accusing Trump of falsifying business records in the first degree.

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“During the election, Trump and others employed a ‘catch and kill’ scheme to identify, purchase, and bury negative information about him and boost his electoral prospects,” Bragg said at a news conference following the hearing.

“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,” he continued.

The charges refer to hush money payments made by Trump’s former personal attorney Michael D. Cohen to adult film star Stormy Daniels, as well as payments to buy the silence of another woman and a Trump Organization doorman before the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump repaid Cohen over nine months, but the payments were recorded as legal fees to pay a retainer agreement, according to prosecutors. Bragg said Trump knew “this simply was not true,” alleging that the Trump Organization and the former president himself purposely mischaracterized the payments.

Some of the checks, Bragg said, were signed by Trump himself.

“Each check was processed by the Trump Organization and illegally disguised as a payment for legal services rendered pursuant to a non-existent retainer agreement,” Bragg said. Each of the charges is in reference to one of the individual checks or financial ledger recordings relating to these payments.

Greg Skordas, a KSL legal analyst and former prosecutor, told the Deseret News he was “surprised” by the number of charges. “We had always assumed there may be a felony or two and a misdemeanor account, but instead they came in with 34 felony charges,” he said.

Each charge is related, however, and not much is known about the allegations beyond the unsealed indictment. “It’s what we call a bare bones indictment,” Skordas said.

“The prosecuting attorney isn’t going to hold anything back and if the grand jury is going to give him 34 counts, then he’ll take them,” he said. Skordas said that each separate offense leaves Trump vulnerable if a trial jury convicts him of just one of the felony charges.

Read the full charges here.

Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table with his defense team in a Manhattan court, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York.
Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table with his defense team in a Manhattan court, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in New York. | Seth Wenig, Associated Press

What is falsifying business records in the first degree?

Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor in the state of New York unless it can be proven the defendant acted to conceal another crime, in which case it is a felony.

New York state penal code 175.10 states: “A person is guilty of falsifying business records in the first degree when he commits the crime of falsifying business records ... when his intent to defraud includes an intent to commit another crime or to aid or conceal the commission thereof.”

What other crime is Trump accused of concealing?

Bragg was unequivocal about the scope of the charges. “Under New York State law, it is a felony to falsify business records with the intention of fraud and intent to conceal another crime,” he said. “That is exactly what this case is about.”

However, it is not clear what other crime Bragg is accusing Trump of attempting to conceal.

When asked by reporters for specifics at the news conference, Bragg did not go into detail but did mention potential violations of U.S. election law’s federal campaign donation cap and a New York state election law against conspiracy to promote a candidate by unlawful means.

Skordas said the law doesn’t require Bragg to specify all the allegations of wrongdoing.

“Indictments simply tell you what the overall charge is,” he said. “During a process called discovery there will be reports and evidence that tell the defense what the specific allegations are with respect to each charge.”

What happens next?

Merchan set the next hearing for Dec. 4, where he could entertain multiple motions, including motions to dismiss the charges or a possible change of venue.

Skordas said he found it odd to delay the next hearing.

“It’s very rare that a judge will schedule the next hearing eight months later,” he said. “I would have expected maybe coming back in 60 days.”

Merchan did not issue a gag order against Trump. But he did reportedly warn Trump and his legal team against making social media posts that could incite violence or “jeopardize the rule of law.”

Last week, Trump posted a now deleted photo of himself holding a baseball bat next to Bragg’s head.

Prosecutors are also working with Trump’s attorneys on a protective order barring the former president from talking publicly about any sensitive information obtained during the discovery process.

Trump’s lawyers complained of leaks to the press from the district attorney’s office about the case that could make it difficult to seat an unbiased jury.

House Republican leadership Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and James Comer of Kentucky said Tuesday a gag order against a current presidential candidate might be unconstitutional.

Trump was released on his own recognizance after the hourlong hearing. He immediately boarded his plane back to Florida, where he is scheduled to hold a campaign rally Tuesday night.