NEW YORK, April 4 (Reuters) - Former President Donald Trump was charged on Tuesday with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in a historic case over allegations he orchestrated hush-money payments to two women before the 2016 U.S. election to suppress publication of their sexual encounters with him.
Prosecutors in Manhattan accused Trump, the first sitting or former U.S. president to face criminal charges, of trying to conceal a violation of election laws during his successful 2016 campaign.
"Not guilty," Trump, 76, said when asked by the judge in court how he pleaded. Wearing a dark blue suit and red tie, Trump sat, subdued, with his hands folded at the defense table flanked by his lawyers.
The front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination in 2024, Trump responded with answers like "yes" when the judge asked him if he understood a right. At one point, the judge put his hand to his ear as if to prompt an answer.
Prosecutor Chris Conroy said: "The defendant Donald J. Trump falsified New York business records in order to conceal an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of the 2016 presidential election and other violations of election laws."
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 when done to advance or conceal another crime, such as election law violations.
The two women in the case are adult film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS
Prosecutors during the arraignment said Trump made a series of social media posts, including one threatening "death and destruction" if he was charged. The judge asked the parties to "please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest."
On a cool and sunny early spring day in New York, Trump supporters and detractors before the arraignment were separated by barricades set up by police to try to keep order, though there were some confrontations.
Trump said nothing as he entered the courtroom or when he left roughly an hour later.
He flew home to Florida where he addressed family, friends and supporters at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach on Tuesday night, delivering a litany of grievances against investigators and prosecutors and rival politicians.
He described the New York prosecution as election interference.
"I never thought anything like this could happen in America," Trump said. "The only crime that I've committed has been to fearlessly defend our nation against those who seek to destroy it."
Trump faces a separate criminal probe by a county prosecutor in Georgia into whether he unlawfully tried to overturn his 2020 election defeat in the state. He also faces two U.S. Justice Department investigations led by a special counsel into attempts to overturn the 2020 election results and his handling of classified documents after leaving office.
"They can't beat us at the ballot box so they try to beat us through the law," Trump said.
Earlier in the day, Trump posted on social media: "Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse. Seems so SURREAL - WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can't believe this is happening in America."
Manhattan District Attorney Bragg's team appears to have presented a solid case, said Adam Kaufmann, a defense lawyer who previously oversaw prosecutions in Manhattan.
"What they’ve done is taken a bare bones falsifying business records indictment, and through the statements of facts, presented it as part of conspiracy, which I think is very effective," Kaufmann said.
Jeremy Saland, another former prosecutor, cautioned that prosecutors know they "have a very long road ahead with these charges" because they will have to prove to a jury that Trump intended to break election law even though he is not criminally charged with doing so.
JUDGE SETS DEC. 4 HEARING
Justice Juan Merchan set the next hearing for Dec. 4. Legal experts said a trial may not even get under way for a year, and indictment or even a conviction will not legally prevent Trump from running for president.
"We're going to fight it hard," Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Trump, told reporters after the arraignment. He said that while Trump was frustrated, upset and angry about the charges, "... he's motivated. And it's not going to stop him. And it's not going to slow him down. And it's exactly what he expected."
Bragg, a Democrat who pursued the case and has been accused by Trump and other Republicans of targeting him for political reasons, defended the charges.
"We today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law. No amount of money and no amount of power changes that enduring American principle," Bragg told a news conference.
The grand jury convened by Bragg that indicted Trump heard evidence about a $130,000 payment made to Daniels in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Daniels has said she was paid to keep silent about a sexual encounter she had with Trump at a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2006.
The former publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, offered to look out for negative stories during Trump's campaign, prosecutors said. American Media Inc, its parent company, paid McDougal $150,000 to buy the rights to her story but then kept it secret. It also paid a former Trump Tower doorman $30,000 to buy the rights to an untrue story about a child Trump had allegedly fathered out of wedlock.
Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has said he coordinated with Trump on payments to Daniels and McDougal. Trump has denied having had sexual relationships with either woman but has acknowledged reimbursing Cohen for his payment to Daniels.
Trump's reimbursement checks to a lawyer for the suppression payments falsely stated that the money was for a "retainer agreement," prosecutors said. The indictment accused Trump of falsifying his real estate company's books with intent to defraud.
The false records included invoices from Cohen, entries in a ledger for Trump maintained by the Trump Organization, and check stubs, according to the indictment.
One element of the charges is a method known as "catch and kill" used by some media outlets to bury damaging information.
Bragg's office did not charge Trump with violating election laws.
"Under New York state law, it is a felony to falsify business records with intent to defraud and intent to conceal another crime. That is exactly what this case is about - 34 false statements made to cover up other crimes," Bragg said.