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With hunched shoulders and pursed lips, Donald Trump plays defense

Former US president Donald Trump sits grim-faced at his arraignment Tuesday in New York over charges stemming from hush money payments. ©AFP

New York (AFP) - Manhattan's towering criminal court complex has witnessed history time and again, hosting famous moments including Mark David Chapman's guilty plea after shooting John Lennon, and Harvey Weinstein's conviction for sex crimes.

But everyone from armed officers to the most hardboiled court reporters were visibly on edge as one of contemporary history's most notorious New Yorkers solemnly strode up the middle aisle, his lips pursed and flaxen hair slightly disheveled as he went from being Donald Trump, former president, to Donald Trump criminal defendant.

A few photographers were allowed to capture the drama of the 76-year-old's initial presence in the stiflingly hot room, as the one-time White House resident wearing a blue suit and red tie greeted their lenses with steely eyes.

But after the cameras were swiftly ushered back into the heavily guarded corridor and proceedings got underway, Trump's tough-guy demeanor faded, his glances oscillating between twitchy and drained.

Throughout the one-hour hearing his disposition was that of a child on the first day of school: a bit curious, a bit bored, and mostly wondering when he could go outside.

But the man who made his name as a brash real estate mogul and tabloid personality before a stunning ascent to the nation's highest office contained himself, cooperating with the scripted rhythm of an arraignment and allowing his lawyers to run the show.

As is customary for a defendant, Trump rarely spoke during the proceedings, but when he did it was loud and clear: "Not guilty."

He denies all 34 counts against him, felony charges related to hush money payments including over an alleged tryst with adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

But guilty or not, it's a sordid affair for the twice-impeached Republican, who is vying for another presidential stint in Washington.

Trump voiced defiance for weeks as the indictment loomed, but appeared glum following the fingerprinting that goes with any standard booking procedure.

'Absolutely frustrated'

Trump's first appearance as a criminal defendant was likely the first of many encounters between members of the White House press corps and journalists covering New York City's courts, a melding of worlds once seemingly disparate.

Gaining access to the 15th floor of the granite and limestone art-deco style building on Tuesday required a full 24 hours of waiting amid the media frenzy -- where rival protestors sneered at each other and helicopters buzzed overhead -- before two security checks and several more lines.

All electronic gear including watches were strictly banned -- merely rolling up a pair of headphones merited a court officer's scolding -- in the room whose midcentury design is giving way to peeling paint.

Arraignments are usually swift business but Tuesday's was lengthy due to a range of issues which the defense, prosecution and a lawyer for members of the media took up with the judge, signaling a long road of legal wrangling ahead of a tentatively anticipated January 2024 trial.

Trump's lead counsel Todd Blanche, who left an elite New York law firm to helm the defendant's team, repeatedly referred to his client as "the president" and urged the judge not to prevent him from reacting to perceived criticism on social media.

Limiting Trump's ability to speak out would be "potentially unfair for someone who's running for the president of the United States," said Blanche, whom the magnate added to his team on the even of his surrender.

Trump is "absolutely frustrated, upset and believes there is a grand injustice happening," the attorney added.

The attitude was palpable as the 45th president turned and strode out of the room, flanked by secret service as he grimaced at the press, exited without a word and returned to the circus outside, a frenzy of his own design.

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