Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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The Teflon Don No More: Donald Trump Found Guilty on All 34 Counts in New York Hush Money Trial

Guilty on all counts: How lies, cheating, and a hush money payment made to Stormy Daniels led to Trump's downfall.

donald trump guilty verdict hush money trial New York
Sketch: Christine Cornell

In an unprecedented verdict that will go down in history, a jury in New York City found former President Donald Trump guilty on all 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. This verdict, stemming from a $130,000 hush money payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign, has rendered Trump a convicted felon as he embarks on his third run for the White House.

The trial concluded with a swift, decisive verdict, as the 12-person jury—consisting of seven men and five women—reached a unanimous decision after roughly 7.5 hours of deliberation over two days. This conviction marks a historic first: never before has a U.S. president been found guilty of a felony at either the state or federal level.

Thursday’s guilty verdict is a powerful rebuke of Trump’s often repeated claims that he was simply a victim of politically motivated prosecution. The conviction firmly established that he violated New York law—even if the underlying offense of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments is relatively trivial compared to his other alleged crimes.

A Campaign of Concealment

At the heart of the case against Donald Trump was his alleged attempt to conceal an affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels from voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Daniels claimed to have had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, which Trump still denies.

With the 2016 election fast approaching, the Washington Post released the bombshell “Access Hollywood” tape, capturing Trump boasting about his ability to commit sexual assault with impunity because of his celebrity status. The incendiary tape threatened to derail Trump’s White House bid, and the potential release of Daniels’ story risked compounding the fallout.

Jurors heard how in those final months of the campaign, Trump and his inner circle feverishly worked to keep Daniels’ story under wraps. Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time lawyer and fixer, testified that he was directed to facilitate a $130,000 payment to Daniels—part of a shadowy scheme to prevent her from going public. Trump subsequently reimbursed Cohen through payments disguised as legal fees in Trump’s business records.

Prosecutors argued that the hush money payment was an illegal attempt to influence the outcome of the election. Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass, in his closing argument, stated, “The reimbursements to Cohen were cloaked in the conspiracy to promote the election, whether or not that conspiracy actually succeeded in tipping the scale.”

Prosecution Bolstered Cohen’s Claims with Extensive Evidence

The trial, which began in April, was fraught with tension and captivating moments. District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s team meticulously presented a tapestry of evidence—documents, texts, emails, voice recordings, and witness testimony—that painted a damning picture of Trump’s intent and actions. 

The prosecution’s case hinged on the testimony of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former consigliere. While his admitted lies and criminal conduct undoubtedly tainted Cohen’s credibility, the prosecution deftly corroborated his explosive claims with a trove of documentary evidence and witness accounts. 

Cohen’s credibility was repeatedly attacked by Trump’s defense team, who branded him “literally like the MVP of liars.” However, Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass countered by emphasizing the sheer weight of documentary evidence backing Cohen’s claims. “The question is not whether you like Cohen. It’s whether he has useful, reliable information to give you about what went down in this case.”

By acknowledging Cohen’s flaws while underscoring the weight of the broader evidentiary record, the prosecution turned a potentially unreliable witness into a Rosetta Stone for decoding the Trump campaign’s alleged misdeeds. 

“He wasn’t thinking about Melania. This was all about the campaign,” Cohen testified, describing a conversation where Trump ordered the hush-money payment. 

Donald Trump’s Courtroom Antics

Throughout the trial, Donald Trump’s behavior was disruptive and dismissive. He complained about courtroom conditions, the sketch artists, and even dozed off multiple times during the proceedings. He broke the court-imposed gag order ten times, forcing Judge Juan Merchan to hold him in criminal contempt. Judge Merchan cautioned Trump that further infractions could land him in jail. 

The defense’s argument centered on discrediting Cohen and Daniels. Defense attorney Todd Blanche and his team sought to cast Cohen as unreliable and Daniels as an extortionist. However, Daniels’ steadfast testimony about her encounter with Trump and Cohen’s detailed account of the payment arrangement clearly swayed the jury.

Voting Rights in Florida at Risk for Convicted Trump

The falsification of business records is typically a minor offense classified as a misdemeanor under New York law. However, in this case, the offenses were elevated to class-E felonies due to the “intent to defraud” and because these actions were committed to “aid or conceal” violations of election laws.

Class-E felonies carry a maximum sentence of four years behind bars, but it is uncommon for first-time, non-violent offenders to face the maximum sentence. Most legal experts believe that Trump is more likely to face a term of probation ranging from one to four years, rather than incarceration.

The conviction’s implications are profound, both legally and politically. With Trump actively campaigning for the presidency, this guilty verdict will undoubtedly be a focal point of the election narrative. Despite his conviction, Trump remains eligible to run for office and there are no constitutional barriers preventing a felon from holding the presidency (although he may not be able to vote in Florida).

Complex Web of Charges Threatens Trump’s Future

This conviction is just one thread in a broader tapestry of legal troubles surrounding Donald Trump. He faces even more significant criminal charges in several other high-stakes cases.

In Georgia, Trump and 18 others were indicted in August 2023 on charges of racketeering and conspiracy, linked to their attempts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral win in the state. 

In June 2023, Trump was indicted in Florida on 37 federal counts alleging he recklessly mishandled classified national security information in 2021. The indictment stated that he retained highly sensitive documents despite a Justice Department subpoena, including material detailing America’s nuclear capabilities, potential military vulnerabilities of the U.S. and its allies, as well as contingency plans for retaliatory strikes.

Compounding his legal woes, the former president was indicted in August 2023 for his multi-faceted efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. The charges, filed in federal court in Washington D.C., accuse Trump of orchestrating three criminal conspiracies: defrauding the United States government, obstructing the official certification of the Electoral College vote, and violating voters’ civil rights by attempting to disenfranchise them.

The Verdict and Trump’s Reaction

On the day of the verdict, Donald Trump was markedly subdued. The courtroom was tense as the guilty verdicts were read for each of the 34 counts. Trump’s uncharacteristically muted response, coupled with visible signs of disappointment, was a stark contrast to his usual bluster. Post-verdict, he resumed his familiar narrative outside the courtroom, decrying the trial as “rigged” and politically motivated. “The real verdict is going to be Nov. 5, by the people,” Trump declared.

The Fallout: A Trial Without Precedent

The conviction of a former president on felony charges sets a significant precedent: that no one is above the law, regardless of their wealth or power. Trump, who built his brand on defiance and showmanship, now faces the reality of being a convicted felon. 

In a powerful rebuke of the defense’s arguments, the jury’s decision sends a resounding message about the importance of a robust justice system capable of holding even the most powerful individuals accountable for violations of the law. The case stands as a testament to the enduring strength of the legal system in upholding the rule of law and ensuring that no one, not even those at the highest echelons of power, is immune from consequences for unlawful conduct.