Donald Trump Convicted in Historic New York Hush-Money Trial

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For six weeks, the former most powerful man in the world sat like an ordinary citizen in a drab courtroom, a criminal defendant being judged by a jury of his peers. 

Donald Trump glowered, complained, bloviated, and snoozed during a trial both historic and tawdry over whether he falsified business records to cover up hush money paid to a porn star on the eve of the 2016 election. On May 30, the 12 jurors delivered their unanimous verdict: guilty on all 34 counts. To all his norm-shattering iterations—flashy businessman, name-brand showman, novice President—Trump has added a new title: felon.

The trial that led to the first-ever criminal conviction of a former U.S. President was often marked by its unseemliness. A motley cast of characters—the former porn star, the tabloid publisher, the crying press aide, the disgraced former fixer—recounted episodes of spankings, clandestine meetings, and payoffs, all intended to establish that Trump had criminally conspired to hide information about his behavior that could have affected voters’ choices. But while the crimes may feel insubstantial, the stakes for American democracy are far weightier. Trump once again threatens to upend the precepts of the U.S. political system and test the foundations of the country’s rule of law.

Trump will hardly be humbled by this outcome; he’s already called the trial a scam and vowed to appeal, a process that could take months or longer. “This was a rigged trial. It was a disgrace," Trump said after he was found guilty. "The real verdict is going to be on November 5th by the people." As Trump runs against President Joe Biden in a tight race this fall, voters will have to grapple with questions both political and constitutional. The election is heading into uncharted territory.

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For now, the system has held: this was an orderly trial with a careful judge and a patient jury that listened to the evidence and rendered a verdict without falling prey to intimidation from—most notably—a famous defendant who repeatedly violated his gag order. “It really is a demonstration of an evolved system of justice that applies to all people,” says Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney.

And yet the hush-money trial is widely viewed as the least serious of Trump’s criminal cases. Judge Juan Merchan may not even give him any jail time at the sentencing set for July 11. Trump is still facing three other criminal prosecutions—two over his attempts to overturn the 2020 election and one over allegations that he mishandled classified documents. Trials focused on the former President as a threat to democracy and national security would strike more directly at what many view as the central issues of this election. But it’s unlikely any of those cases will get to trial before Election Day. Now that the New York jurors have made their decision, it’s up to the rest of the nation’s citizens to define the true stakes of the Manhattan verdict. Because it’s perfectly legal for a felon to run for President—even from behind bars—Trump’s defense team always had an eye on a bigger audience outside the courtroom. “They [tried] this case for the public and not for the jury,” says Duncan Levin, a former Manhattan prosecutor.

Come November, voters will need to decide what it might mean to elect a convicted criminal to the highest office in the country—and how much power they’re comfortable with that man wielding over the judicial system that has just held him to account.

From the moment Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced charges against Trump more than one year ago, people doubted his unconventional strategy.

“It cheapens the term election interference to call this election interference,” says Richard Hasen, a professor of law at UCLA. Jed Shugerman, a law professor at Boston University, called the case “an embarrassment” that pushed the boundaries of prosecutorial ethics. 

It is not illegal to pay someone “hush money.” On its face, Bragg’s evidence pointed to 34 misdemeanor counts of falsifying business records, for all of which the statute of limitations had passed. Bragg’s novel approach bumped each of those misdemeanors up to first-degree felony charges by alleging they were all committed to bolster another crime related to violating election laws, but Bragg didn’t have to prove that second crime. He argued that Trump was intent on keeping Stormy Daniels’ story about an old sexual liaison out of public view before the election to help his campaign.

Making such a nuanced case was bound to be challenging. Yet the reviews from legal experts of Bragg’s team’s performance heading into closing arguments were largely positive. Prosecutors were “successful at reframing this as essentially a disinformation operation on the 2016 election, not just the coverup of an affair,” says Asha Rangappa, a lawyer and former FBI agent who is now a senior lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. 

Trump’s lawyers, on the other hand, drew plenty of second-guessing for a legal strategy that revolved around denying not only the crime, but that Trump ever had an affair with Daniels. But when Daniels herself was called to the witness stand, she was convincing as she recalled meeting Trump during a celebrity golf tournament on the shores of Lake Tahoe in 2006, the initial encounter that set the events of the case in motion. She was 27 years old at the time and attended the event to promote a porn studio. Trump invited her to his hotel room where they discussed her appearing on his reality TV show The Apprentice, she said.

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Speaking quickly, Daniels described vivid details from her evening with Trump, including the Old Spice she spotted in his toiletry kit and the underwear he was wearing when she emerged from the bathroom and saw him on the bed. She recalled feeling as if Trump had the upper hand. “I did note there was a bodyguard right outside the door. There was an imbalance of power for sure,” she said. “But I mean I was not threatened verbally or physically.” She said she blacked out and the next thing she remembers, she was on her back on the bed. Daniels told the jury the sexual intercourse was brief, and Trump did not wear a condom, which concerned her. 

While Daniels’ account was embarrassing for Trump, to make their case, prosecutors needed to convince the jury that his decision years later to pay for her silence was intended to help his presidential campaign. Trump’s longtime friend David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, bolstered the prosecution’s thesis when he described an August 2015 meeting in Trump Tower in which he agreed to be Trump’s “eyes and ears” to help bury stories that might damage his White House aspirations.

The testimony from Pecker was crucial in showing that Trump intended to have stories about him bought and kept from public view, says Norman Eisen, a senior fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution and former counsel to the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s first impeachment. “Pecker established that they intended to make these payoffs to benefit that campaign from the time of the Trump Tower meeting in August 2015,” Eisen says.

At the heart of the case was whether Trump himself had paid for Daniels to remain silent and obscured that payment as legal fees to his lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, a star witness in the trial. Prosecutors showed the jury a handwritten note written by a former Trump Organization executive outlining payments to Cohen. The note included a reimbursement for $130,000, the amount Cohen paid Daniels. It was a “smoking gun document,” Eisen says.

But Cohen’s credibility was always one of the biggest vulnerabilities to the prosecution’s case. In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to multiple crimes involving the hush-money scheme including lying to Congress and federal investigators. That’s why one of the most damning moments for Trump may have actually come from Hope Hicks, Trump’s former White House press aide who, unlike Cohen, has never spoken out against her former boss. The prosecution asked Hicks about a conversation she had with then-President Trump in February 2018, as news stories began to emerge that Daniels had been paid to stay silent about the 2006 sexual encounter. Hicks described Trump asking her how the news stories about his rendezvous with Daniels were playing in the press. Trump seemed relieved that the story had not come out earlier, Hicks testified. “He wanted to know how it was playing, and just my thoughts and opinion about this story versus having the story—a different kind of story before the campaign, had Michael not made that payment,” Hicks said. “And I think Mr. Trump’s opinion was it was better to be dealing with it now, and that it would have been bad to have that story come out before the election.” With that, the prosecutor said, “No further questions.” A few moments later, Hicks began to cry.

Even before the verdict had been delivered, Trump and his team were looking ahead to the next major judgment to be cast on him: the 2024 election. His legion of running mate contenders and congressional allies showed up to support him at the trial, in lockstep and seemingly in uniform, with many wearing matching red ties. When they were all in a courthouse holding room on May 16, ahead of Cohen’s first day of cross examination, an aide brought Trump a stack of polls showing him leading Biden in several swing states. “Look at these numbers,” Trump said. “These are great.”

Now that he’s been found guilty, Trump intends to cast the conviction as proof that the trial was nothing more than a political hit job, sources familiar with the matter tell TIME. “Mother Teresa could not beat the charges,” Trump griped as jury deliberations began. The campaign is expected to craft a messaging strategy that depicts the verdict as a foregone conclusion engineered by Democrats who fear Trump’s return to the White House and tailor fundraising pitches around his continued legal peril. 

Trump is all but certain to emphasize his appeal, though that process is expected to stretch far past November. He would likely first take the case to the Appellate Division in Manhattan, and ultimately seek review from the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals in Albany, which already ruled against his multiple requests to delay the trial.

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It’s not clear how voters will respond. Polling suggests Trump could lose nearly 10% of his supporters if convicted of a crime, which could prove decisive in what’s shaping up to be an incredibly close race. By the end of May, Trump was leading Biden in an average of national polls by FiveThirtyEight by a slim 41.3% to 39.9%. A set of polls released the same month by The New York Times, Siena College, and The Philadelphia Inquirer showed Trump leading Biden in five key swing states—four of those by 10 percentage points or less. While surveys have found Americans are most concerned about the economy, immigration, and abortion, Democrats are hoping Trump’s status as a felon will repel the swing voters most likely to decide the election. As the trial wrapped up, Biden campaign officials were discussing internally how much to amplify a potential Trump conviction in their messaging and whether to run ads using the phrase “convicted criminal” to describe him. The campaign communications director Michael Tyler made a statement outside the courthouse the day of closing arguments, calling Trump an “unhinged, power hungry, self-centered man” and a “unique and growing threat” to democracy.

Privately, Trump’s team recognizes they can’t replicate the same strategy that propelled him in the primary, when Trump used his avalanche of legal woes to consolidate the Republican Party, raise millions of dollars, and undermine his rivals. But they’re betting the New York case won’t tip the scales too far in the opposite direction, either. “His alleged affair with Stormy Daniels is something that Americans have known for years,” says a Trump operative. “It's nothing new.” The proceedings also weren’t televised—New York state bans cameras in court—limiting the case’s ability to reach voters not already tuned in. “It wasn’t actually interesting television,” the source says. “You're just hearing talking heads recap what they saw in a courtroom.”

There may be at least one way Trump’s trial has already helped the campaign. April, when the trial began, was the first month Trump outraised Biden, surpassing the incumbent by more than $25 million. While Biden still has $100,000,000 more cash on hand, the swing in fundraising momentum was a warning sign to Democrats. Trump sources attribute the profusion of donations to Trump’s plight in court and the syncing of the Republican National Committee with the campaign. That dynamic may continue as Trump’s three other criminal prosecutions and his appeal process in New York are likely to remain in various states of limbo through Election Day.

No one is sure how the ruling announced in a Manhattan courtroom will influence the world outside of it. If the conviction “doesn’t detract from his political success and he wins reelection, I can imagine this will not stand as a huge chapter in the book about Donald Trump,” says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “It’s one of those cases where the outcome itself might not be as significant as what happens after the outcome in terms of his political future.”

There will be a relentless effort by both Democrats and Republicans to capitalize on the conviction, with each side knowing full well their designs center on a man with a history of defying political gravity. It was hard for most to imagine Trump could win the 2016 election after the Access Hollywood tape came out showing him bragging about groping women. It was even harder to fathom he would mount a political comeback after being impeached twice in his first term, leaving office with an approval rating of around 30%, and unleashing a mob of his supporters to violently attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

For any other American politician, the New York verdict would mark the end of a career. For Trump, there’s no telling what comes next. “The passion this guy stirs on both sides is unparalleled and will never be matched again,” says a source close to Trump. “There's nobody like Donald Trump.”

—With reporting by Nik Popli/Washington and Simmone Shah/New York

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