05 April 2023

What happened during Donald Trump’s day in court as a criminal defendant?

05 April 2023

For the first time in history, a former US president has appeared in court as a criminal defendant.

Donald Trump surrendered to authorities on Tuesday after being indicted by a New York grand jury on charges related to hush-money payments at the height of the 2016 presidential election.

Mr Trump, a 2024 presidential candidate, pleaded not guilty to 34 felony charges in a Manhattan courtroom.

Here’s what to know about Mr Trump’s day in court:

-Hush-money payments related to 2016 election

Prosecutors unsealed the indictment against the former president Tuesday, giving Mr Trump, his lawyers and the world their first opportunity to see them.

Mr Trump was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree. Prosecutors said Mr Trump conspired to undermine the 2016 presidential election by trying to suppress information that could harm his candidacy, and then concealing the true nature of the hush-money payments.

The payments were made to two women — including a porn actor — who claimed they had sexual encounters with him years earlier, and to a doorman at Trump Tower who claimed to have a story about a child Mr Trump fathered out of wedlock, according to the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

-Donald J Trump, defendant

Mr Trump was only seen briefly outside the district attorney’s office, where he surrendered to authorities and was booked and fingerprinted behind closed doors. Mr Trump’s mugshot was not taken, according to two law enforcement officials who could not publicly discuss details of the process and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

As the former president entered the courtroom, he briefly looked at a huddle of news cameras but did not stop to speak to reporters.

Inside the courtroom, Mr Trump sat at the defence table with his hands in his lap and his lawyers at his side. He looked right at photojournalists who were briefly allowed into the courtroom as they snapped his photo. During the rest of the proceeding, he stayed still with his hands together and looked straight ahead.

Mr Trump only spoke briefly in court, telling the judge he was pleading “not guilty” and had been advised of his rights. The judge warned Mr Trump that he could be removed from the courtroom if he was disruptive. Mr Trump made no comment when he left court just under an hour later.

Mr Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche said during the hearing that Mr Trump is “absolutely frustrated, upset and believes that there is a great injustice happening” in the courtroom.

-Mr Trump’s response outside court

Before he appeared in court, Mr Trump made posts on his social media network complaining that the heavily Democratic area was a “VERY UNFAIR VENUE” and “THIS IS NOT WHAT AMERICA WAS SUPPOSED TO BE!”

As his motorcade carried him across Manhattan, he posted that the experience was “SURREAL”.

The Republican has portrayed the Manhattan case and three separate investigations from the Justice Department and prosecutors in Georgia, as politically motivated. In recent weeks, he has lashed out at Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, called on his supporters to protest and warned about “potential death and destruction” if he were charged.

-Bragg speaks briefly

Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, speaking publicly for the first time since the indictment last week, held a brief news conference after the court proceedings in which he said the hush-money scheme constituted “felony crimes in New York state—no matter who you are”.

“We cannot and will not normalise serious criminal conduct,” Mr Bragg said. The Democratic prosecutor said accurate and true business records are important everywhere, but especially in Manhattan, because it is the financial centre of the world.

Mr Bragg was asked at the news conference why he was bringing the case now and if the timing was political. The district attorney said his office had “additional evidence” that his predecessor did not.

“I bring cases when they’re ready,” he said.

-Warnings and potential consequences

The judge on Tuesday did not impose a gag order but warned Mr Trump to avoid making comments that were inflammatory or could cause civil unrest. If convicted of any one of the 34 felony charges, Mr Trump could face a maximum of four years in prison, but he would likely be sentenced to less.

Any alleged offence punishable by more than one year in prison is called a felony in the US justice system.

-Trial while campaigning for presidency

Mr Trump is due back in court in December, but his lawyers asked that he be excused from attending that hearing in person because of the extraordinary security required to have him show up.

A trial has been scheduled for January — weeks before the first votes will be cast in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

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