Donald Trump, the former US President, twice impeached, has broken new historical ground by becoming the first president to be charged with a crime after a grand jury in New York voted to indict Trump.
Trump appeared in a Manhattan criminal court at around 3pm local time on Tuesday where he was formally charged with 34 counts of falsifying records in the first degree. The offences are low-level felony crimes in the state of New York.
“The People of the State of New York allege that Donald J. Trump repeatedly and fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal crimes that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election,” New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement.
The fraud charges are the result of a long-standing investigation by the District Attorney into hush money payments he made to porn actress Stormy Daniels in the days before the 2016 US election.
“Less than two weeks before the 2016 election, Michael Cohenwired $US130,000 to Stormy Daniels’ lawyer,” Bragg said in a press conference following the hearing.
“That payment was to hide damaging information from the voting public. The participant scheme was illegal.”
However, it was revealed that the DA has also been investigating other hush money payments made by the former president. Further charges related to a USD$30,000 payment to a Trump Tower doorman who wanted to go public with a story that Trump had a child out of wedlock and a USD$15,000 payment to another woman claiming to have had asexual relationship with Trump.
In total, the 34 charges all carry a maximum sentence of four years, meaning Trump is potentially looking at 136 years behind bars. However, none of the charges carry a mandatory minimum sentence so a judge weighing the evidence of a 76-year-old man with no prior criminal history could decide to simply give him a fine or community service.
Trump, who is still planning to run for president again in 2024, pled not guilty to all charges and was released on bail. He immediately flew back to his Florida home of Mar-a-Lago to give a press conference.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America,” Donald Trump said at the press conference.
“Never thought it could happen. The only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.”
The conference was attended by his son, Donald Trump Jr and Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene along with hundreds of supporters who cheered as he critiqued those involved with the case.
In a statement, Trump has said that he is in “great spirits” while “we are living through the darkest hours of American history.”
“My team showed me all of the support, the love, the prayers and the donations YOU gave our movement while I was getting arrested and arraigned.”
Trump’s campaign has reportedly raised more than USD$10 million since the announcement of his indictment. His team are already selling mocked-up photos of the former president’s mug shot with the phrase “not guilty” underneath.
“you are why I could NEVER give up on our mission to save America – no matter how nasty and vicious the attacks ever got,” the statement continued.
The City of New York was on high alert in preparation for this historic arrest, with 700 riot police mobilised across the city to deal with potential protests. The NYPD and the FBI have also collaborated on a plan to keep Bragg and his staff safe.
Despite Trump’s calls for demonstrations, the streets of the city were relatively quiet. A few protestors clashed outside the courthouse, some waving ‘Trump lies’ banners, others draped in American flags and ‘MAGA’ gear. Although there were fears of a repeat of the violence seen during the 2021 insurrection at the Capitol Building in Washington, nothing of the sort happened.
The threat of indictment had been hanging over the president for months after the grand jury trial was opened in January. No other US President has however been formally arrested, indicted, or charged.
Trump’s allies and big players in the Republican Party have rallied around him in recent weeks, claiming the arrest is politically motivated and an interference with democracy.
Why Has Donald Trump Been Arrested?
Trump’s potential and alleged crimes are varied and numerous, ranging from treason, fraud, electoral interference, obstruction of justice, and the mishandling of classified documents, to name but a few. He is currently under investigation by several US legal branches for these and other offences.
But prosecutors in New York have been zeroing in on one case that has dragged on across much of his political career: That of his relationship with the porn actress Stormy Daniels.
Thank you https://t.co/96ZZ7oDTtm
— Stormy Daniels (@StormyDaniels) March 30, 2023
The New York court has been investigating alleged hush money paid to Daniels just before the 2016 election.
Daniels, who has been outspoken about her relationship with the former President, claims that Trump had sex with her in 2006 at a charity golf tournament four months after the birth of his youngest son, Barron.
She attempted to speak about the incident to In Touch Weekly magazine, but the story was spiked after threats from Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen. Daniels claims she was personally threatened by people working for Trump and accepted $130,000 from Cohen to keep quiet over concerns for her family’s safety.
Cohen was later jailed in 2018 for legal violations during the 2016 Presidential campaign. In court proceedings, it was revealed that the money he paid Daniels was reimbursed by the Trump Organisation and recorded in their documents as a ‘legal retainer’. Cohen also said that Trump knew about the payments and what they were for.
“I do take solace in validating the adage that no one is above the law, even a former president. Today’s indictment is not the end of this chapter but rather just the beginning,” Cohen said in a statement following the indictment announcement.
“Accountability matters and I stand by my testimony and the evidence I have provided to the district attorney in New York.”
Trump has acknowledged reimbursing the payment but denies wrongdoing and the affair itself. Paying someone hush money is, surprisingly, not illegal. But doing so with corporate money and then misrecording the payment could amount to ‘falsification of legal records’, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of four years. Given that this was an organisation involved in an election campaign, this could also come under campaign finance violations.
How Was Donald Trump Arrested?
The indictment of a former president is unprecedented.
But so too is the unlawful conduct in which Trump has been engaged.
A nation of laws must hold the rich and powerful accountable, even when they hold high office.
Especially when they do.
To do otherwise is not democracy.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) March 30, 2023
Trump’s actual was a fairly mundane process. Much of it was simply fulfilling the legal procedures of fingerprinting and photographing before awaiting trial.
Trump was indicted on Friday and flew from his Florida home to New York on Monday. On Tuesday afternoon, local time, he submitted himself to the court where charges were read out and pled not guilty. Then he returned to Florida.
Sources close to Trump said that the former President had been hoping to be able to turn the arrest into a full spectacle to galvanise his base. He has even requested to be handcuffed behind his back and ‘perp walked’ into the courthouse, claiming that safety is his last concern and that if he were to be shot he would then go on to win the 2024 election.
His trial is slated for December of this year.
Will Trump Run in 2024?
In spite of the charges now being laid against him, Trump has previously said that the will continue to campaign for the 2024 Presidential election.
After losing his re-election bid in 2020 to Joe Biden, Trump has since claimed that the election was stolen from his, alleging massive voter fraud. Such fraud has never been identified or proven.
The arrest will no doubt galvanize his claims of an organisational conspiracy against him.
Recent polling indicates that Trump likely has the support of over half of those likely to vote in the Republican primary elections for presidential nominee, far higher than that of his closest rival, Ron DeSantis.
“I wouldn’t even think about leaving,” Trump said in relation to the potential arrest. “Probably it will enhance my numbers.”
Now that indictment is a reality, it remains to be determined how the Republican party and their supporters will react.