Former US president Donald Trump has appeared in front of an adoring crowd at his Florida home to rail against his indictment following his court appearance in New York.
“The only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it,” he told hundreds of chanting fans gathered at Mar-a-Lago just hours after his unprecedented appearance in a Manhattan courtroom.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America.
Mr Trump flew back from New York City almost immediately after pleading not guilty in court, to speak to supporters on Tuesday night (local time).
He emerged to the sound of the song Proud to be an American and the crowd chanted “USA” as he made his way to a microphone for his first public comment since news of his indictment emerged last Friday.
The Republican accused Democrats of spying on his campaign and listed what he claimed were “fraudulent investigations” of his conduct while in office, such as the probe into Russian interference in the 2020 election.
He also mentioned the 2020 presidential election, repeating his debunked claims of fraud, and claimed “our country is going to hell” to which the audience applauded.
Mr Trump called the 34 felony counts of falsifying business records brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, “massive election interference at a scale never seen before in our country”.
He also criticised the US justice system and called Mr Bragg a criminal – comments that came just hours after the judge in his case, Justice Juan Merchan, warned him not to say anything that might be in contempt of court.
Justice Merchan declined to issue a gag order on the case. But he told both sides to urge clients and witnesses to watch their behaviour.
“Please refrain from making comments or engaging in conduct that has the potential to incite violence, create civil unrest, or jeopardise the safety or well-being of any individuals,” he said.
Mr Trump said he had been in New York City “with a local failed district charging a former president of the United States for the first time in history on a basis that every single pundit and legal analyst said there is no case.”
“Last week he delayed for a month, and then immediately took that back and threw this ridiculous indictment together,” he said.
“Came out today, everybody said this is not really an indictment. There’s nothing here.”
Mr Trump claimed Mr Bragg should be prosecuted or resign for illegal leaks of grand jury information. He also took aim at Justice Merchan, decrying him as a “Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family.”
Prosecutors have accused Mr Trump of orchestrating payments to two women before the 2016 US election to suppress publication of their sexual encounters with him.
They allege Mr Trump – the first sitting or former US president to face criminal charges – falsified business records to conceal a violation of election laws during his successful 2016 campaign.
The two women were adult film actor Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Prosecutor Chris Conroy said: “The defendant Donald J Trump falsified New York business records in order to conceal an illegal conspiracy to undermine the integrity of the 2016 presidential election and other violations of election laws.”
While falsifying business records in New York is punishable by no more than one year in prison, it is punishable by up to four years when done to advance or conceal another crime, such as election law violations.
Prosecutors said Mr Trump, 76, made a series of threatening social media posts, including one threatening “death and destruction” if he was charged. The judge asked the parties to “please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest”.
Mr Trump, the frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination in 2024, said nothing as he entered the courtroom or when he left roughly an hour later.
Justice Merchan set the next hearing for December 4. Legal experts say a trial might not begin for a year, and indictment or even a conviction will not legally stop Mr Trump running for president.
“We’re going to fight it hard,” Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Mr Trump, told reporters after the arraignment, adding that Mr Trump was frustrated, upset and angry about the charges.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who has been accused by Mr Trump and other Republicans of targeting him for political reasons, defended the charges.
“We today uphold our solemn responsibility to ensure that everyone stands equal before the law. No amount of money and no amount of power changes that enduring American principle,” Mr Bragg said.
The Manhattan grand jury convened by Mr Bragg heard evidence about a $US130,000 ($A193,000) payment made to Ms Daniels in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Ms Daniels has said she was paid to keep silent about a sexual encounter she had with Mr Trump at a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2006.
The former publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, offered to look out for negative stories during Mr Trump’s presidential campaign, prosecutors said. American Media Inc, its parent company, paid Ms McDougal $US150,000 to buy the rights to her story but then kept it secret.
It also paid a former Trump Tower doorman $US30,000 to buy the rights to an untrue story about a child Mr Trump had allegedly fathered out of wedlock.