Donald Trump charged with 34 felonies in Stormy Daniels hush-money case

The former president pleaded not guilty after New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan unsealed the charges against him, a first in U.S. history

Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table with his legal team in a Manhattan court, Tuesday, April 4, 2023
Former President Donald Trump sits at the defense table with his legal team in a Manhattan court, on April 4, 2023, in New York.Seth Wenig (AP)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

His lawyers expected the day to be “painless and classy”, a procedure as discreet as possible, but no one could have predicted the turmoil that would be generated by former President Donald Trump’s appearance before the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The first U.S. president, current or former, to stand before a judge was charged Tuesday with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records and conspiracy in connection with the hush money paid in 2016 to porn actress Stormy Daniels so she would keep quiet about an extramarital affair. Trump pleaded not guilty. The unveiling of the charges opens a new and uncertain chapter in Trump’s career, in the Republican Party and, by extension, in American politics.

The Republican arrived at the New York judicial headquarters at 1.30 pm, more than half an hour ahead of schedule, while supporters and opponents crowded the streets, pushing, shoving and hurling insults at each other. The massive presence of police and reporters made Trump’s appearance at 100 Centre Street in Lower Manhattan virtually indiscernible, while the insistent rotor of helicopter propellers provided the soundtrack to the moment.

Authorities took Trump’s mugshot, fingerprinted him, and completed all the arrest paperwork, which also included checking if the Republican has any outstanding criminal charges or warrants. Trump then went on to the courtroom where state Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan proceeded to the arraignment. It was a quick procedure. The unprecedented moment barely took an hour. Once formally charged — i.e., awaiting trial — the tycoon headed to the airport to return to his mansion in Mar-a-Lago, Florida. From there, he is scheduled to give a prime-time address at 8.15 pm.

In addition to real, procedural justice, there has also been a lot of poetic justice in Trump’s appearance. He had to humble himself, that is, bend his pride and haughtiness, before District Attorney Alvin Bragg, an African American, and Supreme Court Justice Merchan, a Hispanic –– an ethnicity he demonized during the 2016 presidential campaign by calling them “bad hombres,” as he referred to immigrants back then. Today, a man who has long embodied power and success took a seat in the dock and faced a Black and Democratic prosecutor and a Latino judge.

The indictment will not prevent Trump from seeking the presidential nomination in the Republican primaries ahead of the 2024 general elections. On the contrary, in the short term, the charges appear to be giving him a significant boost. His 2024 campaign raised more than $4 million in the first 24 hours after the New York grand jury’s decision on Thursday to indict him; and $3 million more since then. Of the initial four million, 25% came from new donors, which goes to show the effect the legal procedure has had on recruiting potential votes for next year. Currently, he is the Republican candidate best positioned in the polls. The latest one put him 30 points ahead of the still-unofficial candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. However, the extent to which the former president will be able to ride this wave remains to be seen, as many believe that the victim card he has been playing will lose momentum as the process progresses.

Despite the public humiliation of being held accountable — a first for him — Trump is not just going to roll over and make things easy. Hours before his appearance, he requested on his social network, Truth Social, that the trial be moved to Staten Island, considering it a “very fair and safe place,” as well as much more politically sympathetic to Republicans than the Democratic stronghold of Manhattan. In the post, the former president called the New York Supreme Court justice a “known Trump hater.”

Merchan, of Colombian origin, tried last year one of Trump’s top aides — Allen H. Weisselberg — who for decades was the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and whom he sentenced to five months in jail and five years probation for tax fraud. Trump resurrected that case today on Truth Social, to add fuel to his victim-of-the-system persona. “He was an unfair mess on a previous Trump-related case. [Merchan] wouldn’t recuse, gave horrible jury instructions, and [was] impossible to deal with during the witch hunt trials,” he wrote.

“Political persecution” and “witch hunts by Democrats” are the two concepts that the Republican has repeatedly used to criticize the case and avoid any responsibility, as well as the alleged instrumentalization of justice as a weapon aimed at him. In the same Truth Social post, Trump added, as a demerit, that the judge’s daughter once worked in the campaign of the current vice-president, Kamala Harris. “Kangaroo court!” he concluded.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks at a protest held across the street from the Manhattan District Attorney's office in New York on April 4, 2023. Associated Press/LaPresse (Associated Press/LaPresse)

A Tuesday rally organized by Trump’s ally Marjorie Taylor Greene (MTG, as she is better known) — one of the most extreme Republican figures — was more chaotic than it was a show of support for the former president, in addition to not having been authorized. It was impossible to see or hear anything between the array of cameras, police and onlookers who took over the square in front of the court. It was even difficult to make out George Santos, the Republican congressman from New York who is being investigated for having invented a good part of his biography and résumé. Santos, who, like MTG, is on the most radical wing of the GOP, is criticized even by many in his own party, so his presence, far from constituting a show of support for the former president, marked one of the ironies of the rally, which only gathered about 100 people.

On Monday, ahead of MTG’s gathering, the mayor of New York, the Democrat Eric Adams, asked her for restraint and manners during a briefing on the extraordinary security measures the city would adopt on the day of the arraignment. “People like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is known to spread misinformation and hate speech, while you’re in town, be on your best behavior,” Adams warned MTG and her supporters.

Trump supporters and opponents rallied in separate areas demarcated by the police, to avoid incidents, a vivid metaphor of the polarization of American society. Although the Republican establishment has closed ranks around Trump, the more extreme demonstrations of support — such as MTG’s — only helped to fuel the anticipated circus surrounding the arraignment.

Inside the court, Judge Merchan did not get swept up in the spectacle. On Monday, he authorized the presence of only five photographers in the courtroom, before the arraignment, while prohibiting any electronic device, including cell phones of journalists who lined up all night to get inside the building, arguing that transparency cannot take precedence over procedure. “Trump’s arraignment has generated unparalleled public interest and media attention. The populace rightly hungers for the most accurate and current information available,” Merchan explained in a statement. However, he added that the news organizations’ interests in providing the broadest possible access to the proceedings had to be weighed against “competing interests.”

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