The protestors were outnumbered by the press. The indictment included just a handful of surprises. And Donald Trump delivered a rambling speech attacking the judge’s family. In the end, the United States witnessed history as the former president pleaded not guilty to felony charges in New York. The next court date is December 4th. Here’s what Semafor’s reporters saw on the scene.
The View From The Protesters
A smattering of protesters in MAGA hats and other gear, some left over from the 2020 election, stood on one side of Collect Pond Park. Across police barriers, counter protesters celebrated the indictment with life-size Hillary Clinton cutouts and signs that read “Lock Him Up.” Reporters and photographers, who had swarmed the scene, far outnumbered each group.
Only two members of New York’s Congressional delegation attended the dual rallies: Reps. George Santos, R-N.Y. and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. Santos left soon after being mobbed by the press, later telling Semafor he had felt threatened.
Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had been billed as the star of the protest. But she too skipped out after a brief appearance, during which her remarks were drowned out by the counter protesters, a number of whom were blowing whistles. That group included New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who told Semafor he came after being urged by his friend Bowman. “We wanted to say hello with some whistles,” he said. “We got our message heard.”
I caught up with Greene for an interview in her car afterwards. She shared an excerpt of her speech that few were able to hear. “I stood up and I said: You know, for six years, they told us that President Trump would destroy democracy, but really today democracy has been destroyed because of this Manhattan DA.” When asked if Trump should still become president if he’s convicted, she said: “Absolutely. I mean, let's use Nelson Mandela, for example— a great leader. They arrested him and that was political persecution as well.”
— Kadia Goba
The View From The Courthouse
Trump’s lawyers strode into the uncomfortably warm courtroom just before 2:30 p.m., and a stone-faced Trump soon trudged down the aisle after them, flanked by New York State court officers and Secret Service.
The proceeding lasted just under one hour. Trump sat with his back to the rest of the courtroom, only speaking when the judge directly addressed him. His tone sounded ever-so-slightly defiant as he pleaded “not guilty” to the 34 felony counts against him.
The most gripping moments came as the two sides sparred over Trump’s social media posts. In recent days, the former president accused Judge Juan Merchan of bias, warned of impending “death and destruction,” and posted an article featuring a photo of himself holding a baseball bat next to a picture of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s head.
The DA’s office described them as “threatening” and “escalating,” while Trump’s team sought to downplay the seriousness of his rhetoric. Judge Merchan said he would not impose a gag order, telling the room that he’d decline to do so even if it had been requested out of his concern for “critically important” First Amendment rights. At the same time, he urged both sides to avoid statements that might incite violence or create civil unrest and warned that he'd look closer at Trump's comments should his inflammatory rhetoric continue.
Trump exited the courtroom shortly before 3:30pm — looking even more serious and ignoring the camera crews in the hallway as he was whisked away from the scene. Afterwards, in the scrum outside, Trump attorney Joe Tacopina told the press that the former president posting wasn’t meant to threaten Bragg. “That is a picture of him showing off an American-made bat," he said.
— Shelby Talcott
The View From The Prosecutors
The indictment against Trump did not contain major surprises. Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records for allegedly labeling hush money payments he made to adult actress Stormy Daniels as legal expenses. Cooking company records is ordinarily a misdemeanor in New York, but can become a felony if it’s done to conceal another crime. In their statement of facts, prosecutors claim Trump faked his accounting in order to hide an “unlawful” scheme with the National Enquirer to “catch and kill” damaging stories about the former president’s affairs during the 2016 election.
It’s a legally complicated case based on facts that have long been public, and many commentators dismissed it as thin. “That indictment landed like a dud,” Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director, said on CNN.
Given that federal and local prosecutors had both decided to pass on bringing charges over these issues in the past, why was Bragg bringing an indictment now? He offered an answer during an afternoon press conference, suggesting that, as the “business capital of the world,” New York had a “profound” interest in enforcing record keeping laws.
Also, he said his office had turned up new evidence. Though he didn’t get into specifics, that appears to include text messages that could help corroborate testimony from former Trump-attorney turned critic Michael Cohen, as well as testimony from former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker suggesting the catch and kill operation was indeed aimed at helping Trump’s election chances, rather than protecting his family — both of which could help cut off Trump’s avenues of defense.
— Jordan Weissmann
The View From Mar-a-Lago
If anybody thought Trump might mellow his rhetoric after Judge Merchan’s warning, he proved them wrong during his post-arraignment speech at Mar-A-Lago.
“I have a Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family, whose daughter worked for Kamala Harris,” the former president told a crowd of attendees seated inside the ballroom of his Florida home. (Earlier in the day, his son Donald Trump Jr. posted a Breitbart article on Truth Social that featured a photograph of the judge’s daughter).
The meandering remarks played a bit like an unfocused campaign speech, combining his personal grievances with riffs on the war in Ukraine, inflation, and election conspiracies. He railed against the investigations against him, calling Special Counsel Jack Smith a “lunatic” and dismissed Bragg’s case as politically motivated. “They can’t beat us at the ballot box,” he said. “So they try to beat us through the law.”
— Shelby Talcott