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Guilty: Trump becomes first former U.S. president convicted of felony crimes

NEW YORK –

Donald Trump became the first former U.S. president to be convicted of felony crimes Thursday as a New York jury found him guilty of falsifying business records in a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 election through hush money payments to a porn actor who said the two had sex.

The verdict is a stunning legal reckoning for Trump and exposes him to potential prison time in the city where his manipulations of the tabloid press helped catapult him from a real estate tycoon to reality television star and ultimately president. As he seeks a return to the White House in this year’s election, the judgment presents voters with another test of their willingness to accept Trump’s boundary-breaking behavior.

Trump is expected to quickly appeal the verdict and will face an awkward dynamic as he seeks to return to the campaign trail as a convicted felon. There are no campaign rallies on the calendar for now, though he’s expected to hold fundraisers next week. It will likely take several months for Judge Juan Merchan, who oversaw the case, to decide whether to sentence Trump to prison.

The falsifying business records charges carry up to four years behind bars, though prosecutors have not said whether they intend to seek imprisonment, and it is not clear whether the judge — who earlier in the trial warned of jail time for gag order violations — would impose that punishment even if asked. The conviction, and even imprisonment, will not bar Trump from continuing his pursuit of the White House.

Trump faces three other felony indictments, but the New York case may be the only one to reach a conclusion before the November election, adding to the significance of the outcome. Though the legal and historical implications of the verdict are readily apparent, the political consequences are less so given its potential to reinforce rather than reshape already-hardened opinions about Trump.

For another candidate in another time, a criminal conviction might doom a presidential run, but Trump’s political career has endured through two impeachments, allegations of sexual abuse, investigations into everything from potential ties to Russia to plotting to overturn an election, and personally salacious storylines including the emergence of a recording in which he boasted about grabbing women’s genitals.

In addition, the general allegations of the case have been known to voters for years and, while tawdry, are widely seen as less grievous than the allegations he faces in three other cases that charge him with subverting American democracy and mishandling national security secrets.

Even so, the verdict is likely to give President Joe Biden and fellow Democrats space to sharpen arguments that Trump is unfit for office, even as it provides fodder for the presumptive Republican nominee to advance his unsupported claims that he is victimized by a criminal justice system he insists is politically motivated against him.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan criminal court during jury deliberations in his criminal hush money trial in New York, May 30, 2024. (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)

Trump maintained throughout the trial that he had done nothing wrong and that the case should never have been brought, railing against the proceedings from inside the courthouse — where he was joined by a parade of high-profile Republican allies — and racking up fines for violating a gag order with inflammatory out-of-court comments about witnesses.

The first criminal trial of a former American president always presented a unique test of the court system, not only because of Trump’s prominence but also because of his relentless verbal attacks on the foundation of the case and its participants. But the verdict from the 12-person jury marked a repudiation of Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in the proceedings or to potentially impress the panel with a show of GOP support.

The trial involved charges that Trump falsified business records to cover up hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, the porn actor who said she had sex with the married Trump in 2006.

The US$130,000 payment was made by Trump’s former lawyer and personal fixer Michael Cohen to buy Daniels’ silence during the final weeks of the 2016 race in what prosecutors allege was an effort to interfere in the election. When Cohen was reimbursed, the payments were recorded as legal expenses, which prosecutors said was an unlawful attempt to mask the true purpose of the transaction. Trump’s lawyers contend they were legitimate payments for legal services.

Trump has denied the sexual encounter, and his lawyers argued during the trial that his celebrity status, particularly during the 2016 campaign, made him a target for extortion. They’ve said hush money deals to bury negative stories about Trump were motivated by personal considerations such as the impact on his family and brand as a businessman, not political ones. They also sought to undermine the credibility of Cohen, the star prosecution witness who pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges related to the payments, as driven by personal animus toward Trump as well as fame and money.

The trial featured more than four weeks of occasionally riveting testimony that revisited an already well-documented chapter from Trump’s past, when his 2016 campaign was threatened by the disclosure of an “Access Hollywood” recording that captured him talking about grabbing women sexually without their permission and the prospect of other stories about Trump and sex surfacing that would be harmful to his candidacy.

Trump himself did not testify, but jurors heard his voice through a secret recording of a conversation with Cohen in which he and the lawyer discussed a US$150,000 hush money deal involving a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who has said she had an affair with Trump: “What do we got to pay for this? One-fifty?” Trump was heard saying on the recording made by Cohen.

Former U.S. president Donald Trump returns to the courtroom at Manhattan Criminal Court, May 30, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)

Daniels herself testified, offering at times a graphic recounting of the sexual encounter she says they had in a hotel suite during a Lake Tahoe golf tournament. The former publisher of the National Enquirer, David Pecker, testified about how he worked to keep stories harmful to the Trump campaign from becoming public at all, including by having his company buy McDougal’s story.

Jurors also heard from Keith Davidson, the lawyer who negotiated the hush money payments on behalf of Daniels and McDougal.

He detailed the tense negotiations to get both women compensated for their silence but also faced an aggressive round of questioning from a Trump attorney who noted that Davidson had helped broker similar hush money deals in cases involving other prominent figures.

But the most pivotal witness, by far, was Cohen, who spent days on the stand and gave jurors an insider’s view of the hush money scheme and what he said was Trump’s detailed knowledge of it.

“Just take care of it,” he quoted Trump as saying at one point.

He offered jurors the most direct link between Trump and the heart of the charges, recounting a meeting in which they and the then-chief financial officer of Trump Organization described a plan to have Cohen reimbursed in monthly installments for legal services.

And he emotionally described his dramatic break with Trump in 2018, when he decided to cooperate with prosecutors after a decade-long career as the then-president’s personal fixer.

“To keep the loyalty and to do the things that he had asked me to do, I violated my moral compass, and I suffered the penalty, as has my family,” Cohen told the jury.

The outcome provides a degree of vindication for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who had characterized the case as being about election interference rather than hush money and defended it against criticism from legal experts who called it the weakest of the four prosecutions against Trump.

But it took on added importance not only because it proceeded to trial first but also because it could be the only one of the cases to reach a jury before the election.

The other three cases — local and federal charges in Atlanta and Washington that he conspired to undo the 2020 election, as well as a federal indictment in Florida charging him with illegally hoarding top-secret records — are bogged down by delays or appeals.

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