Former US president Donald Trump conspired to illegally influence the 2016 election through a series of hush money payments designed to silence claims that he feared would be harmful to his candidacy, New York prosecutors said in unsealing a historic 34-count felony indictment.
The charges arose from a series of cheques that Mr Trump or his company wrote during the presidential campaign to his lawyer and fixer for his role in making a payment to a porn actor who alleged an extramarital sexual encounter with Mr Trump years earlier.
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.
They were made to “protect his candidacy”, Mr Conroy added.
Any alleged offence punishable by more than one year in prison is called a felony in the US justice system.
The indictment amounts to a remarkable reckoning for Mr Trump after years of investigations into his personal, business and political dealings, unfolding against the backdrop not only of his third campaign for the White House but also against other investigations in Washington and Atlanta that might yet produce even more charges.
Mr Trump, stony-faced and silent as he entered and exited the Manhattan courtroom, said “not guilty” in a firm voice while facing a judge who warned him to refrain from rhetoric that could inflame or cause civil unrest.
The next court date is December 4, though it is not clear if Mr Trump will be required to appear.
It centres on pay-offs to two women, including porn actor Stormy Daniels, who said they had extramarital sexual encounters with him years earlier, as well as to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about a child he alleged the former president had out of wedlock.
“It’s not just about one payment. It is 34 false statements and business records that were concealing criminal conduct,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told reporters, when asked how the three separate alleged payments were connected.
Those payments, made over 12 months, were recorded in various internal company documents as being for a legal retainer that prosecutors say did not exist.
Mr Cohen testified before the grand jury and is expected to be a star prosecution witness.
Nine of those monthly cheques were paid out of Mr Trump’s personal accounts, but records related to them were maintained in the Trump Organisation’s data system.
Prosecutors allege that the first instance of Mr Trump directing hush money payments came in the autumn of 2015, when a former Trump Tower doorman was trying to sell information about an alleged out-of-wedlock child fathered by Mr Trump.
David Pecker, a Trump friend and the publisher of the National Enquirer, made a 30,000 dollar payment to the doorman to acquire the exclusive rights to the story, pursuant to an agreement to protect Mr Trump during his presidential campaign, according to the indictment.
Mr Pecker’s company later determined the doorman’s story was false, but at Mr Cohen’s urging is alleged to have enforced the doorman’s confidentiality until after election day.
The investigation also concerns six-figure payments made to Ms Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both say they had sexual encounters with the married Mr Trump years before he got into politics.
Mr Trump denies having sexual liaisons with either woman and has denied any wrongdoing involving payments.
At least 500 prominent supporters have been invited, with some of the most pro-Trump congressional Republicans expected to attend.
A conviction would not prevent Mr Trump from running for or winning the presidency in 2024.
Wearing his signature dark suit and red tie, Mr Trump turned and waved to crowds outside the court before heading inside to be fingerprinted and processed.
He arrived at court in an eight-car motorcade from Trump Tower, communicating in real time his anger at the process.
“Heading to Lower Manhattan, the Courthouse,” he posted on his Truth Social platform. “Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
Afterwards, Trump lawyer Todd Blanche told reporters that it was a “sad day for the country”.
“You don’t expect this to happen to somebody who was president of the United States,” he said.
Mr Trump, who was impeached twice by the US House but was never convicted in the US Senate, is the first former president to face criminal charges.
The nation’s 45th commander in chief was escorted from Trump Tower to the court by the Secret Service.
The scenes around Trump Tower and the court did not feature any major unrest. Police tried to keep apart protesters supporting the former president and those opposing him by confining them to separate sides of a park near the court using metal barricades.