In a federal courtroom in New York City today, former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 charges related to financial misconduct, fraud, and obstruction of justice.
Trump, 76, is the first current or former US president who has been indicted and arraigned for a crime.
The charges, which were approved last week by a grand jury, carry a penalty of up to 136 years in prison but Trump is likely to face far less than the maximum sentence if he is convicted.
The indictment filed against Trump was finally unsealed Tuesday, accusing the ex-president with a stunning 34 felony counts tied to falsifying business records — claiming he orchestrated a scheme to “influence the 2016 presidential election” and continued to break the law after taking office.
Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor in New York but the charges may be upgraded to a felony if the offense is committed to hide other crimes.
Trump, who appeared in court wearing a dark suit and red tie, was flanked by his legal team as he entered his plea.
New York State Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan, a well-respected jurist with a reputation for being tough on white-collar crime, admonished Trump for his behavior in the courtroom.
“Mr. Trump, you are not above the law,” the judge said sternly. “You will be held accountable for your actions, just like any other citizen. Your conduct in this courtroom must be respectful and dignified, or you will face consequences.”
Merchan’s warning comes after Trump called for protests ahead of his indictment last month and suggested that charges could result in “potential death & destruction.”
Trump, who has been a vocal critic of the nation’s most solemn institutions in the past, appeared uncharacteristically subdued during the proceedings.
He answered the judge’s questions politely and did not make any inflammatory comments.
Outside the courthouse, a crowd of protesters gathered to voice their support for Trump and to denounce the charges against him. Many of them carried signs that read “Trump 2024” and “Stop the Witch Hunt.”
Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche said during Tuesday’s arraignment that the 2020 presidential election loser had “responded forcefully” and was “frustrated” and “upset” by the request.
“Imagine anybody in this courtroom who was in that position,” Blanche said, adding, “Every one of these posts are not threats.”
Blanche also criticized media appearances by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and longtime fixer, who delivered the 2016 hush money payments that resulted in the criminal charges brought against the former president.
The judge told Trump’s legal team that he does not “share your view” on the former president’s social media posts, but asked the Manhattan district attorney’s office to talk with its witnesses as well.
“There’s only so much we can do,” Assistant District Attorney Chris Conroy said in response, adding they have talked with Cohen and will continue to do so.
Meanwhile, legal experts are already speculating about the potential outcome of the case. Some believe that Trump’s high-powered legal team will be able to mount a successful defense, while others believe that the evidence against him is too strong.
For now, however, the former president remains free on bail, and the case is set to continue in the coming weeks and months. It is sure to be closely watched by political observers and legal experts alike, as the fate of one of the most controversial figures in American politics hangs in the balance.
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