Jury finds Donald Trump guilty in hush-money case

The Republican has become the first former U.S. president to be declared a felon after being convicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up a sex scandal

Donald Trump, en el pasillo del tribunal penal de Nueva York el miércoles 29 de mayo, el día que empezó a deliberar el jurado.
Donald Trump, at the criminal courthouse in New York on Wednesday, May 29, the day the jury began deliberating.Doug Mills (via REUTERS)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

Former president and current Republican candidate Donald Trump has been convicted of falsifying business records to cover up an extramarital affair with porn actress Stormy Daniels that could have derailed his campaign for the White House in 2016. As required, the 12-member jury unanimously found him guilty of all 34 felony counts. With the jurors’ decision, Trump has become the first former U.S. president to be declared a felon. The verdict comes just over five months before the November 5 presidential election, setting off an earthquake in the U.S. political landscape. “I’m a very innocent man,” Trump said as he left the courthouse.

Sentencing has been scheduled for July 11. The 34 felony counts of falsifying business records brought against him were punishable by up to four years in prison, but his lack of a criminal record will likely work in his favor. Media present in the courtroom reported that Trump remained unresponsive, almost petrified, as he listened to the guilty verdicts. Upon leaving the court, though, he assumed his usual combative and defiant attitude as he addressed the media for just over two minutes, though he did not take any questions.

“This was a disgrace,” Trump said, calling the trial “disgraceful” and “rigged” “by a conflicted judge who was corrupt.” “The real verdict is going to be November 5, by the people,” he added in reference to this year’s general election. “They know what happened here, everybody knows what happened here.” He went on to fault the Biden administration for the trial and the verdict. He concluded: “We will fight for our Constitution. This is far from over.”

The jury had the option of convicting him on all charges, acquitting him on all charges, or returning a mixed verdict of guilty on some offenses and not guilty of others (the equivalent of a not guilty verdict). In each of the decisions, unanimity was required: a single dissenting opinion would have been sufficient for the trial to be declared a mistrial, although Judge Merchan could invite the jurors to redirect the deliberations in an attempt to reach an agreement. Despite the conviction, Trump can continue his electoral campaign and even be re-elected in November.

After receiving instructions from Judge Juan Merchan, deliberations began on Wednesday, May 29. At his request, the jurors reviewed the testimony of other witnesses because, as Merchan emphasized, they could not rely solely on the account of “accomplice” Michael Cohen, the main prosecution witness on whose testimony the case rested. Therefore, they first requested to review the statement of David Pecker, Trump’s friend and publisher of the tabloid The National Enquirer, a key publication in the concealment of information unfavorable to the interests of the Republican in the 2016 presidential campaign.

During the marathon closing arguments session on Tuesday the 28th, the prosecution and the defense tried to convince the jury of seven men and five women, all Manhattan residents, of Trump’s guilt or innocence, respectively. For more than four hours, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass accused the former president of trying to “mislead” voters in the 2016 presidential election through a criminal scheme to bury embarrassing stories that could torpedo his campaign, especially among female voters. The hush-money payment to Daniels was made in October, weeks before the election, to bury a 2006 sexual relationship that the Republican denies. “This case, at its core, is about a conspiracy and a cover-up,” Steinglass said in the final round of closing arguments.

On the other side, Trump’s lead attorney, Todd Blanche, tried to pick holes at the conspiracy argument (“every campaign in this country is a conspiracy,” he said) and branded the prosecution’s star witness, former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, the “greatest liar of all time,” while proclaiming his client’s innocence on all counts and pressing the jury for an acquittal.

The trial featured evidence that Trump and his allies — Cohen, who has already been tried and convicted of bribery and subsequent illicit campaign finance, and Pecker, the publisher of the National Enquirer — conspired to cover up potentially embarrassing stories during the 2016 presidential campaign by paying bribes to Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. The defense attorney devoted a good part of his interventions during the trial to refuting the testimonies of Daniels — whom he cast as a profiteer driven by economic interest — and Cohen, who made the $130,000 hush-money payment to Daniels for which Trump then falsified business records to conceal the reimbursement back to Cohen. When the reimbursement was made in 2017 by the then-president, the Trump Organization disguised it as “legal expenses.” That became the basis of the prosecution’s case against the Republican.

Trump has repeatedly denied his relationship with Daniels. However, during the trial, the prosecution argued that Daniels’ account of their alleged encounter at a Lake Tahoe hotel was full of details “that kind of ring true,” such as the decor of the suite and what she saw in Trump’s toiletry bag. Steinglass admitted that the woman’s story was “messy. It makes people uncomfortable to hear. It probably makes some of you uncomfortable to hear. But that’s kind of the point,” Steinglass said during closing arguments. And he added: “In the simplest terms, Stormy Daniels is the motive” for the crime.

Donald Trump, Todd Blanche y Emil Bove
Donald Trump, flanked by his attorneys, sits at the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York, on May 29, 2024.JABIN BOTSFORD / POOL (EFE)

Avoiding another scandal

The payment was made against the noisy backdrop caused by the Access Hollywood tape, a recording from 2005, but released in September 2016 — a month before Daniels was paid the $130,000 — in which Trump could be heard bragging about groping women without their permission because he was famous. According to prosecutors, the publication of that tape, by The Washington Post, convinced Trump of the need to avoid the possible revelation of the affair with Daniels, to dodge another scandal, as it could cost him in the election, especially with women voters.

The statements by prosecutors and lawyers, with conflicting assessments on the credibility of the witnesses, Trump’s criminal liability and the strength of the evidence, offered the jury the final push to complete a momentous task, unprecedented in the United States: to convict or acquit a former president and current presidential candidate before the November elections. The case, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, was already historic before it even reached the trial stage: it was the first indictment against a former American president. Now, it is also the only one of the four criminal proceedings that Trump is facing to be resolved before November 5, when the country will head to the polls.

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