Back at Mar-a-Lago, Trump denounces hush money charges as ‘an insult to our country’
PALM BEACH, Florida (AFP) – Donald Trump offered a throaty defense of his behavior on Tuesday in his first public remarks since being accused of hush money payments to a porn star, blasting the criminal prosecution as “an insult to our country”.
Hours earlier the 76-year-old former US president pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts at a dramatic hearing in New York that moved the nation – and began the countdown to the first-ever criminal trial of a president America.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America – I never thought it could happen,” Trump told an audience of hundreds of donors, political allies and other supporters after returning to Mar-a -Lago, his beach house in southern Florida.
“The only crime I have committed is to defend our nation without fear of those who want to destroy it… It is an insult to our country.”
Trump – the front-runner in the race for the 2024 Republican nomination – said from a stage draped with American flags in an opulent gold and cream ballroom that “radical leftist” prosecutors across the country were out to get him “any cost”.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is prosecuting Trump for cooking his company’s books to hide payments he arranged for adult film actress Stormy Daniels days before the 2016 election, to cover up an alleged sexual encounter a decade earlier.
Trump’s former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, is serving a five-month prison term on the same charge of falsifying business records.
Manhattan prosecutors say Trump “repeatedly fraudulently falsified New York business records to conceal criminal conduct and damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”
A “statement of facts” released with the indictment included details of hush money payments to Daniels, Playboy model Karen McDougal and a former Trump Tower doorman claiming to have a story about a child Trump had out of wedlock.
Daniels was paid $130,000 by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, while McDougal and the doorman received $150,000 and $30,000 respectively from AMI, publishers of the National Enquirer mass-market tabloid.
Bragg alleges that Trump and his allies “took steps that mischaracterized, for tax purposes, the true nature of the payments.”
Trump and his lawyers have accused Bragg of overreaching in his characterization of the allegations.
The one-time reality TV star had sent out a fundraising email shortly before flying back to Florida, saying her campaign had raised more than $10 million since news of her indictment broke.
“Even though we are living through the darkest hours in American history, I can say that at least I am in the moment right now,” Trump said.
The Republican who was twice impeached is the first sitting or former American president to be criminally indicted.
Earlier in the Manhattan courtroom, he answered “not guilty” to all charges in a clear voice, sitting with shoulders hunched and sometimes looking agitated but mostly listening cooperatively.
Judge Juan Merchan said a trial could begin as early as January – a month before the start of the presidential primaries – although Trump’s lawyers have indicated they would like to push it back to next spring.
More serious charges
In scenes broadcast on live television – with counter-protesters rallying outside – the hearing was a pivotal moment for the US criminal and political system.
Hundreds had gathered, and pro-Trump protesters – wearing “MAGA” hats and gear emblazoned with the American flag – were shouting at their opponents.
For years Trump reveled in his reputation as a playboy but always rejected the tryst with Daniels, which would have happened just after the birth of his third wife Melania.
He faces a series of separate state and federal criminal investigations
a level that could lead to additional — more serious — charges between now and Election Day.
They include his efforts to overturn his loss in the 2020 election in the state of Georgia, his handling of classified documents, and his involvement in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
While Republicans have largely rallied around Trump, President Joe Biden — mindful of his potential 2024 accusations that the judicial system is being politically “weaponized” — has refrained. from making a detailed commentary.