WASHINGTON — Donald Trump relaunched his 2024 campaign Tuesday, just hours after becoming the first former U.S. president to confront felony charges in what prosecutors allege was a hush-money scheme to protect his reputation before the 2016 election.
In a surprisingly brief appearance at his gilded country club sanctuary in Florida, Trump reprised familiar grievances that spanned the full spectrum of his legal troubles, lingering only briefly on the historic charges he now faces.
"I never thought anything like this could happen in America," the former commander-in-chief said from his Mar-a-Lago podium on a stage bedecked in American flags.
"The only crime that I've committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it."
Trump has been showing strength in the polls in recent weeks, adding credulity to his frequent claim that he's the clear front-runner in the race to secure the Republican nomination for president in 2024.
And he's been fundraising mercilessly off of his current legal quandary, including with a T-shirt offering Tuesday featuring a fake mug shot — Trump was not photographed by court officials — and the words, "Not guilty."
Trump sounded more defensive about the two other cases that are amassing against him: an investigation into the removal of classified documents from the White House and his effort in the days following the 2020 election to convince officials in Georgia to overturn his defeat.
"This fake case was brought only to interfere with the upcoming 2024 election and it should be dropped immediately," he said of the latter.
Earlier Tuesday, as factions of protesters and supporters pulsed on the streets of lower Manhattan, Trump entered his not-guilty plea during an unprecedented court appearance that was surrounded by a steely gauntlet of police and Secret Service agents.
In total, Trump is facing 34 counts of falsifying business records, all of them allegedly "with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof," the now-unsealed indictment reads.
The part about concealing the commission of another crime is important because it's what elevates what would otherwise be misdemeanours to the level of a felony.
"Why did Donald Trump repeatedly make these false statements? The evidence will show that he did so to cover up crimes relating to the 2016 election," Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg told a news conference.
The charges flow from the Stormy Daniels affair, in which "hush money" payments were made during Trump's 2016 presidential campaign to silence claims of extramarital sexual encounters.
All 34 counts against Trump are linked to a series of cheques that were written to Trump's now-estranged lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, who has already been convicted of violating campaign finance laws.
"(Trump) could not simply say that the payments were a reimbursement for Mr. Cohen's payments to Stormy Daniels; to make that true statement would have been to admit a crime," Bragg said.
"So instead, Mr. Trump said that he was paying Mr. Cohen for fictitious legal services in 2017 to cover up actual crimes committed the prior year."
Trump accused Bragg of vowing to "get" the former president as part of his own campaign for the job in 2021.
A statement of facts released Tuesday alongside the indictment spelled out the timeline: the scheme ran from August 2015 to December 2017 "by identifying and purchasing negative information about (Trump) to suppress its publication and benefit the defendant's electoral prospects."
Aside from entering his plea, Trump was otherwise uncharacteristically quiet throughout the afternoon, waving to supporters as he entered the courthouse clad in his trademark dark suit and red tie.
From his private jet en route to Florida, Trump fired off a dispatch on his Truth Social platform that seized on the fact that the indictment didn't appear to include any new bombshell revelations.
"Virtually every legal pundit has said that there is no case here," he said. "There was nothing done illegally!"
Trump's campaign also issued a statement that described the case as a "farce" and "an unprecedented attack on our justice system," calling the indictment itself "embarrassing" and "bare bones."
Bragg's investigation has focused on payments that were made to Daniels, an adult film star, as well as to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Another character also resurfaced Tuesday: a Trump Tower doorman who claimed back in 2015 to have a story about Trump fathering a child born out of wedlock.
David Pecker, a Trump friend and the publisher of the National Enquirer, made a $30,000 payment to the doorman to acquire the exclusive rights to the story — part of a "catch-and-kill" scheme designed to keep negative stories about Trump from seeing the light of day.
Pecker's company, American Media Inc., ultimately concluded the story was not true, but Cohen instructed Pecker not to release the doorman from the agreement until after the election, the statement of facts alleges.
The payments were part of "an unlawful plan to identify and suppress negative information that could have undermined his campaign for president," assistant district attorney Christopher Conroy said in court.
Trump lawyer Todd Blanche called it "a sad day for the country."
"You don’t expect this to happen to somebody who was president of the United States," Blanche said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press