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5 things to know about Donald Trump's felony charges

Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at an event Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, Florida on Tuesday after pleading not guilty to 34 felony counts.
Alex Wong
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Getty Images
Former U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at an event Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, Florida on Tuesday after pleading not guilty to 34 felony counts.

Updated April 5, 2023 at 6:32 AM ET

Former President Donald Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts. The charges stem from an investigation led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who alleges that Trump falsified business records to conceal damaging information from 2016 election voters.

Trump is the first former president to face criminal charges — and he's already turning the charges into narrative fodder for his reelection bid.

Here's a guide to what we know.

What was Trump charged with?

The indictment unsealed Tuesday includes 34 counts of falsifying business records with "intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof." That's a Class E felony — the lowest level of felony in the state of New York.

Each check was processed by the Trump Organization and disguised as a monthly payment for legal services under a retainer agreement, prosecutors say. "In truth, there was no retainer agreement," reads a statement of fact that accompanied the charges.

"Manhattan is home to the country's most significant business market," Bragg said in a press release on the charges. "We cannot allow New York businesses to manipulate their records to cover up criminal conduct."

What do we know about the "catch and kill" scheme?

Bragg's case rests on the idea that Trump regularly employed a "catch and kill" scheme to bury negative information.

Prosecutors cited three occasions in which they say Trump "orchestrated" such a scheme with executives at American Media Inc., the company that publishes the National Enquirer. All three took place after Trump announced his candidacy for president in June of 2015.

The first instance came that fall, when AMI paid $30,000 to a former Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about a child that Trump had allegedly fathered outside of his marriage.

Even as the magazine concluded that the story was not true, executives agreed not to release the doorman from the agreement until after the election, prosecutors say, and the payment was "falsely characterized" in AMI's books and records.

The second instance took place in June of 2016 when Karen McDougal, a former Playboy playmate, alleged that she had an affair with Trump while he was married. Trump, his former lawyer Michael Cohen and AMI's CEO David Pecker "had a series of discussions about who should pay off [MacDougal] to secure her silence," prosecutors say.

Ultimately, AMI paid her $150,000 "on the understanding" from Cohen that Trump or his business would reimburse the publisher. (On the advice of AMI's general counsel, that reimbursement never took place.)

The final incident was the $130,000 payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in October 2016, just before the election, to suppress her allegations of an affair at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006.

Trump has denied all three stories about the affairs.

What will prosecutors need to prove?

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks during a press conference outside the Manhattan Federal Court on Tuesday.
Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks during a press conference outside the Manhattan Federal Court on Tuesday.

Under New York state law, the falsification of a business record is only a felony if it was done with the intent to conceal or commit another crime.

In a news conference held after Trump's appearance in court on Tuesday afternoon, Bragg clarified what prosecutors view as two possible other crimes in the Trump case.

The first is New York state election law, "which makes it a crime to conspire to promote a candidacy by unlawful means," Bragg said. In this case, that "could include" false statements, like the misrepresentation to tax authorities of the payments to Cohen.

The second is federal election law, which caps the amount that can be donated to candidates in federal elections.

The indictment does not specify these other crimes. Bragg said he views New York state law as not requiring prosecutors to do so.

How is Trump reacting?

Trump, who was twice impeached as president and still secured more votes than any losing U.S. presidential candidate, tried to turn his day in court into a narrative win with his supporters.

He departed the courthouse in a motorcade that major cable news networks tracked with helicopter footage. His 2024 election campaign began offering a T-shirt with a fake mug shot for a $47 donation.

And to close out a full day of media attention, Trump took the stage at Mar-a-Lago before an audience of his supporters to attack the charges as political persecution.

"I never thought anything like this would happen in America," Trump said to kick off his speech. "The only crime I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it."

In remarks that lasted just around 25 minutes, Trump dismissed the other investigations he's facing, said DA Bragg had "no case" and attacked Judge Juan Merchan and his family as "Trump-hating" people.

Despite being onhigh alert throughout the day, Manhattan saw only small gatherings of Trump supporters near the courthouse, with reporters largely outnumbering the protesters.

But Trump's supporters are clearly showing him support in other ways. His campaign had raised $10 million off the news of the indictment, according to adviser Jason Miller.

Across the GOP, Trump's allies and his critics adopted similar messaging, with even Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, accusing Bragg of pushing "a political agenda."

And as a measure of how that messaging lands, a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday found that two-thirds of all respondents think that the charges in New York are not that serious. Six in 10 say the investigation is politically motivated.

What happens next?

It could be a while until the trial actually gets underway.

Merchan set the next major court date as Dec. 4. The prosecution is pushing for opening arguments to begin sometime in January 2024, but Trump's defense asked for a few more months, maybe sometime in spring 2024. That's right in the heart of primary season, which could complicate the former president's reelection bid.

The defense may try to file motions to delay the case, including moving the venue out of Manhattan, where voters overwhelmingly voted against Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

And then there's the timing complications that could arise if Trump is charged in one of the other three investigations he's facing.

Legal experts expected the Manhattan DA case to be "potentially the weakest" of the investigations, reports NPR's Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson.

In Georgia's Fulton County, prosecutors are examining Trump's role in pressuring local officials to falsely overturn the 2020 election results.

And just before Tuesday's hearing in New York, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., allowed a Department of Justice investigation into Trump to proceed. The court ruled that Special Counsel Jack Smith can question top Trump aides on his actions in Jan. 6 and handling of classified documents, Johnson reports.

NPR's Washington Desk, National Desk, Ximena Bustillo and Rachel Treisman contributed reporting.

This reporting originally appeared in our live blog. Revisit how the news unfolded.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 5, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story said that Donald Trump won a record-breaking number of electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election. Specifically, Trump received more votes than any losing presidential candidate in U.S. history.
Becky Sullivan
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.