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Trump charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today marked a new chapter for Donald Trump and a historic day in America, the first time any sitting or former U.S. president has been charged with a crime. Trump was indicted on 34 felony counts. He pled not guilty in a New York courtroom.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Since news of the indictment broke last week, the former reality-TV-star-turned-president has been dominating the news cycle, much as he did when he was in office.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: LaGuardia Airport, where the president - the former president's plane is about to land in New York City.

KELLY: President Trump once famously questioned his political invincibility if, say, he committed a theoretical crime.

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DONALD TRUMP: I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK?

KELLY: Today the justice system began the process of testing the former president's legal vulnerability.

FLORIDO: In lower Manhattan, outside the criminal court building where Trump turned himself in, crowds of his supporters waved flags bearing his name. For others who gathered there, this was a long-awaited day of accountability for a man who has spent decades avoiding it.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, Donald.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: It's time to face justice.

KELLY: Shortly before 1:30 p.m., the former president's motorcade arrived at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse. Trump exited one of several black SUVs and entered the building.

FLORIDO: Joining us now to talk about the charges that former President Trump was asked to answer for inside that building is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Carrie, Trump was charged on 34 felony counts. What are the most serious charges here?

JOHNSON: That's right. The charges were just unsealed in the last few minutes. We're still going through them as well as the statement of facts, but we do know the 34 counts are related to falsification of business records in the first degree. Essentially, the grand jury says that from August 2015 to December 2017, the former president, Donald Trump, orchestrated a scheme with others to try to influence the 2016 election. That - in a scheme known as catch and kill, they found and purchased negative information about Trump to try to bury it and boost his electoral prospects. And they violated election laws and made and caused false entries to be made in business records of companies in New York. And then they later took steps to mischaracterize for tax purposes the true nature of payments made in that scheme.

We have a statement from DA Alvin Bragg, a written statement. The DA says, Manhattan is home to some of the country's biggest business markets. We can't allow New York businesses to manipulate their records to cover up criminal conduct, and we today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure everyone stands equal before the law.

FLORIDO: Carrie, what happens next? How does the legal process begin to play out from here?

JOHNSON: Well, during the arraignment this afternoon at the federal - at the state courthouse in New York, Judge Juan Merchan set the next court date for December 4. This case could head to trial as early as January 2024. According to the prosecutors, though, Trump's defense team is targeting spring 2024, which, of course, will be right in the heat of some of the primaries. So Donald Trump is not only a former president. He's actually running for the White House again in 2024, which to some extent will complicate this schedule and some of these legal proceedings potentially. We do expect as well that the district attorney's office will have to share some information with the former president's lawyers, a process called discovery. And then we may get some legal motions from the Trump team. The former president has already signaled on social media he might want to change the venue from Manhattan to someplace like Staten Island, which may be more favorable to him electorally speaking.

FLORIDO: Trump did not speak as he was leaving the courthouse after his arraignment, but I understand that his lawyer did. What did his lawyer have to say?

JOHNSON: Yes, one of his lawyers says the indictment itself is boilerplate. He called it disappointing and said they're going to fight it. He said Trump is upset and frustrated and disappointed. He also said this is a sad day for the country. But Trump's lawyers, even before today, had signaled they intend to fight via paperwork and rhetorically. And I expect a lot more of that to come in the hours and days ahead.

FLORIDO: What about the judge in this case, Carrie?

JOHNSON: Yes, the judge, Juan Merchan, is somebody who has handled cases involving the former president and The Trump Organization before. He's no stranger to some of these complicated matters. He also said in court today that the district attorney is not asking for a gag order, despite a lot of speculation in advance of this proceeding - a gag order on the former president. But he said that he's encouraging both sides to refrain from using language that is likely to incite violence or civil unrest and refrain from any action likely to cause that kind of behavior. We know, of course, the former president has been posting for days now about the district attorney, Alvin Bragg, which has led to an uptick in threats against the DA. That's something to monitor moving forward. The former president has also been blasting the judge and one of the judge's children on social media. And we'll have to see if that continues despite this warning today as well.

FLORIDO: Carrie, former President Trump is also being investigated by the Justice Department for his handling of classified documents and his role in the January 6 Capitol riot. He also faces potential charges in Fulton County, Ga., over efforts he made there to overturn the state's 2020 election results. What does it mean that this case involving hush money payments to a porn star went first? And how does the action in this case potentially affect those other cases?

JOHNSON: You know, we're still going through the indictment here, Adrian. But what I can say is that some legal experts expected this case filed by the Manhattan DA to be potentially the weakest. And so we do know that the prosecutor in Fulton County, Ga., has been very actively investigating attempts to pressure state officials there to try to overturn the results of the 2020 election. And, Adrian, just before this proceeding in Manhattan today, a federal appeals court here in Washington sided with the special counsel, Jack Smith, saying that Jack Smith should be able to question some of Donald Trump's top White House aides - former aides in the White House, including Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, about January 6 and those classified documents at Mar-a-Lago - so a big defeat today for the former president there.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson about the arraignment today of former President Donald Trump in New York. Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.