9 min read

Trump’s day in court

Donald Trump has faced legal investigations for more than 50 years. Today, he will enter a plea in response to criminal charges for the first time.
Trump’s day in court
(Gage Skidmore)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, April 4, 2023. The 2024 elections are 581 days away.

In today’s newsletter: A scene-setting piece on what Donald Trump’s arraignment today means, both in the contexts of U.S. history and Trump’s long history of legal problems.

Plus... A play-by-play of how the day will go down. A preview of two key elections taking place. And more top stories you should know about.

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Donald Trump faced his first legal investigation more than 50 years ago, when federal officials probed whether he and his father committed racial discrimination while renting out apartments.

Since then, he has repeatedly pushed up against the guardrails of the law, facing probes for a long list of alleged misdeeds in politics and business: Fraud. Money laundering. Ties to organized crime and Russian nationals. Leveraging government aid for political favors.

Each time, he has been cushioned in some way from consequences. In New York, he cultivated close ties to local prosecutors and sometimes even hired away officials in the midst of investigating him. As president, a Justice Department policy prevented his indictment.

As a former president seeking a return to the office, Trump believed no prosecutor would dare indict him, viewing his campaign as an effective “shield” against criminal charges. As recently as a week ago, after his arrest prediction last month proved inaccurate, Trump and his inner circle thought the grand jury in Manhattan might opt against indicting him, making it yet another investigation to end without a prosecution.

That sudden burst of confidence was misplaced.

Today, for the first time, Trump will stand before a judge and enter a plea in response to criminal charges: “Not guilty.” Assuming the case goes to trial, it will be left to 12 New Yorkers to agree or disagree.

Over the past eight years, Trump has repeatedly thrust American politics into uncharted territory: Two impeachments. A riot at the U.S. Capitol. Bombastic tweets, attacks on veterans, allegations of self-dealing.

Now, from outside the Oval Office, he has again broken new ground, becoming the first sitting or former commander-in-chief to face an indictment.  

Although a presidential indictment is unprecedented in U.S. history, it is not unheard of in other advanced democracies: former leaders of France, South Korea, and Italy, among others, have been been prosecuted. But even our most scandal-tinged chief executives, from Warren Harding to Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, came and went uncharged.  

The charges set to be announced today, which center around hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels and will likely hinge on a novel legal theory, may not be the most serious allegations of criminality Trump will face in the months ahead. (The Justice Department is leading two investigations into his conduct, while a prosecutor in Georgia is conducting another.)

But it is perhaps fitting that they are the first, as they evoke the New York tabloid world that Trump emerged from, and the playboy persona with which most Americans first encountered him.

In this, today’s indictment is reminiscent of an earlier Trump scandal, the “Access Hollywood” tape, another display of boorish bravado that became a hinge moment in his political career.

Then, as now, Trump faced pressure to drop his campaign. Then, as now, he responded not with contrition but by declaring his enemies were conspiring against him and calling for his supporters to consolidate around him as their mistreated champion. Then, as now, his Republican support barely budged in the polls. (Although many Republican leaders did condemn him then, a sign of how far the party has traveled today.)

The day after the tape’s release, the future president famously walked outside of Trump Tower, delighting in the embrace of his adoring supporters. It was a clear message to the political establishment: he wasn’t backing down.

Today, Trump is expected to stage a similarly defiant scene a few miles away, hoping to turn images of his arrest into iconic symbols of martyrdom. Trump allies are planning a rally to show their support; New York officials are bracing for the possibility of violence.

This time, the leadership of the Republican Party stands squarely behind him, taking cues from the majority of GOP voters who continue to express support for his presidential bid, indictment be damned. (Early polls suggest the indictment could be expanding his support; it has led to Trump’s best fundraising period of his 2024 campaign.)

The roots of Trump’s current legal troubles actually stretch back to the “Access Hollywood” aftermath. It was that same day after the tape’s release that Trump’s then-lawyer, Michael Cohen, learned Stormy Daniels was once again shopping around her allegation that she and Trump had an affair in 2006.

“Stormy is back,” Cohen remembers being told, setting into motion his sending her a $130,000 hush payment that Trump later reimbursed. Six and a half years later, that payment has landed Trump in his most serious judicial jeopardy yet, plunging him into legal hot water after decades of dipping his toes in and escaping entirely unscathed.  

How today will unfold.

Trump is already in New York, after his journey there yesterday received wall-to-wall coverage on cable news. He spent the night at Trump Tower.

He will surrender to authorities at Manhattan Criminal Court at around 11 a.m. ET. He will likely be fingerprinted, but according to Yahoo News, Trump will not be handcuffed or subjected to a mugshot. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the Democratic prosecutor who is charging him, deemed both steps unnecessary.

If there is time between his processing and arraignment, Trump is expected to be held in an interview room and not a jail cell, according to the New York Times. He will be surrounded by Secret Service agents at all times throughout this process.

Outside the court building, Marjorie Taylor Greene is set to headline a “Rally for Trump” at 10:30 a.m. ET. “Be on your best behavior,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Monday to Trump supporters who plan on attending. Enhanced security measures are already in place.

Then comes the arraignment at 2:15 p.m. ET, when the charges against Trump will be read aloud in court. Trump has reportedly been charged with 34 felony counts, although the exact charges have not been unsealed and won’t be until the arraignment. It is widely expected that Trump has been charged with falsifying business records, relating to the Trump Organization’s classification of his hush payment reimbursement to Cohen as a “legal fee.”

That would be typically be a misdemeanor in New York, but prosecutors are expected to argue that Trump falsified the records in order to conceal a campaign finance crime, which is enough to elevate the accusation to a felony.

The Manhattan courthouse where Donald Trump is set to be arraigned today. (Ajay Suresh)

Trump will be represented in court by some combination of Todd Blanche, Joe Tacopina, and Susan Necheles. Blanche, who previously represented Paul Manafort, was added to the legal team on Monday after reports that others in Trump’s circle had lost faith in Tacopina.

Judge Juan Merchan, who previously oversaw cases involving the Trump Organization and its CFO, will preside. (Trump has said Merchan “hates” him, but Tacopina has brushed aside the claim.) The former president will enter his “not guilty” plea, and the proceedings will come to a close soon after.

Merchan has decided against allowing the arraignment to be broadcast. Five photographers will briefly be allowed to take pictures, but there will be no video cameras. In a brief order, the judge acknowledged that “Mr. Trump’s arraignment has generated unparalleled public interest and media attention.”

“That this indictment involves a matter of monumental significance cannot possibly be disputed,” Merchan added, in his first public comments on the case. “Never in the history of the United States has a sitting or past President been indicted on criminal charges.”

Trump’s time before the cameras will come later tonight. After the arraignment, he will presumably be released on his own recognizance — as is typical for nonviolent cases — and return to Mar-a-Lago, where his campaign has scheduled a speech at 8:15 p.m. ET. Trump is reportedly hoping to have elected officials join him at the event, an early test of how many Republicans want to stand next to him after his indictment.

Meanwhile, Bragg is slated to hold a press conference of his own at 3:30 p.m. ET.

From there, the legal process will wind on for months and months. Trump’s lawyers are expected to make motions to dismiss the charges, although Tacopina has said they will not do so yet today “because that would be showmanship.” Such motions, and other typical delays, would likely push a trial until the 2024 campaign season is in full swing.

If Merchan wants, and if Trump’s aggressive rhetoric persists, the judge could impose a “gag order” to prevent him from speaking out about the case. Since the indictment was announced last Thursday, Trump has attacked both Bragg and Merchan, called for the district attorney to “INDICT HIMSELF,” blamed the charges on “radical left monsters,” and declared them to be “Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history.”

The Rundown.

Wisconsin will hold a key state Supreme Court election today. In what has been called the “most important American election of 2023,” voters in the battleground state will choose whether to give liberal Janet Protasiewicz or conservative Dan Kelly a 10-year seat on Wisconsin’s highest court.  

Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the court; if Protasiewicz wins and the balance of power shifts, it would have major consequences for decisions on abortion, voting rights, redistricting, and other hot-button issues. More than $42 million has been spent on the race, making it the most expensive state Supreme Court election in history.

Meanwhile, voters in Chicago will pick a new mayor. The choices are Democrats Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and Brandon Johnson, a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners and a former teacher. Both men advanced to today’s runoff by besting incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot, also a Democrat, in the first round of voting earlier this year.

The race is being pitched as a contest between two of the city’s most powerful forces: the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, which is backing the more moderate Vallas and his tough-on-crime message, and the Chicago Teacher’s Union, which has endorsed the more progressive Johnson, a onetime organizer for the union.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill allowing Floridians to carry concealed loaded weapons without a permit. DeSantis, who is mulling a presidential bid, generally holds splashy signing ceremonies for legislation, but he quietly signed this bill on Monday without any reporters present.

Florida is the 26th state to allow some form of permitless carry. The move comes one week after three nine-year-olds and three adults were killed at an elementary school in Nashville.  

More news to know:

  • “Finland is set to join NATO, doubling U.S.-led military alliance’s border with Russia.” (CNN)
  • “Ukraine fumes as Russia assumes presidency of the United Nations Security Council” (CBS)
  • “Chinese spy balloon gathered intelligence from sensitive U.S. military sites, despite U.S. efforts to block it” (NBC)
  • “Trump’s former Secret Service agents to testify in D.C. grand jury Friday in documents case” (Fox)


President Biden will meet with with his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to discuss the “risks and opportunities” of artificial intelligence.

Vice President Harris will preside over a promotion ceremony for Space Force colonel Jacob Middleton to be a brigadier general. Middleton currently serves on the staff of the National Space Council, which Harris chairs.

The House and Senate are on recess until April 17.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will meet with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen at the Reagan Library in California. A bipartisan group of lawmakers will join the meeting — which has sparked threats of retaliation from China — including House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar.

The Supreme Court has nothing on its schedule.  

Before I go...

Last week, I highlighted the results of the World Happiness Report, which found Finland to be the happiest country in the world for the sixth year in a row.

But the New York Times went to the Nordic country, and found a “more complex reality.” Many Finns said they weren’t all that happy — but what that they do share is a certain contentedness.

“In other words,” a Finnish professor explained, “when you know what is enough, you are happy.”

Read the piece for free here.

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— Gabe