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Former President Trump is found guilty in historic New York criminal case

Former President Donald Trump appears in court for his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on Thursday, before a jury of New Yorkers convicted him on 34 felony counts.
Steven Hirsch
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Pool/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump appears in court for his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on Thursday, before a jury of New Yorkers convicted him on 34 felony counts.

Updated May 30, 2024 at 19:34 PM ET

For live updates about the verdict, follow NPR's live blog.

NEW YORK — Former President Donald Trump has been found guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, a historic verdict as Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, campaigns again for the White House.

This is the first time a former or sitting U.S. president has been convicted of criminal charges.

On Thursday, 12 New York jurors said they unanimously agreed that Trump falsified business records to conceal a $130,000 hush money payment to adult-film star Stormy Daniels to influence the 2016 contest.

The decision came after about a day and a half of deliberations.

As the verdicts were read, Trump remained silent and still. But the former president spoke to reporters outside the courtroom, calling the trial a "rigged, disgraceful trial" and saying that the "real verdict" will be rendered on Election Day.

Trump's legal team signaled it would appeal the conviction.

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New York Judge Juan Merchan set sentencing for July 11 — just four days before the start of the Republican National Convention. Trump faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison, but as a first-time, white-collar offender, no prison time is necessary, and he could receive probation instead.

The jury heard from 22 witnesses during about four weeks of testimony in Manhattan’s criminal court. Jurors also weighed other evidence — mostly documents like phone records, invoices and checks to Michael Cohen, Trump’s once loyal “fixer,” who paid Daniels to keep her story of an alleged affair with the former president quiet.

The facts of the payments and invoices labeled as legal services were not in dispute. What prosecutors needed to prove was that Trump falsified the records in order to further another crime — in this case, violating the New York election law that makes it a crime for “any two or more persons [to] conspire to promote or prevent the election of any person to a public office by unlawful means.” The jurors were able to choose whether those unlawful means were violating the Federal Election Campaign Act, falsifying tax returns or falsifying other business records.

Trump’s defense focused intently on the credibility of Cohen and argued that influencing an election is not illegal.

The verdict came more than a year after a grand jury indicted Trump on March 30, 2023, marking the first time a former or sitting president faced criminal charges.

Republicans dismissed the indictment as an overreach of power by Democratic District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who had brought the charges. On Thursday, following the conviction, Republican elected officials quickly rallied around Trump again.

At a news conference Thursday evening, Bragg said: "While this defendant may be unlike any other in American history, we arrived at this trial — and ultimately today at this verdict — in the same manner as every other case that comes through the courtroom doors: by following the facts and the law, and doing so without fear or favor."

What the jury heard

In August 2015, two months after Trump announced his 2016 presidential bid, David Pecker, then the publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, met with Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower, according to testimony from Pecker and Cohen.

At that meeting, Pecker testified, it was agreed that he would be the “eyes and ears” of the Trump campaign. His job was to look out for negative stories from women that he could “take off the marketplace” by buying up the rights to the stories but never publishing them.

The plan, as Pecker outlined it, was that he would suppress these stories and at the same time publish negative stories about Trump’s opponents. Some of these stories, Pecker said, were sent to Trump and Cohen for approval prior to publication.

Over the next year, Pecker said, he carried out this role. His testimony was corroborated by Keith Davidson, an attorney who represented both Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. In about June 2016, McDougal considered going public with her story of a yearlong affair with Trump. But Pecker bought the rights to that story, with the expectation that he would be reimbursed by Trump. That never happened.

In early October 2016, according to the testimony of former Trump communications aide Hope Hicks, the campaign was rocked by the release of the Access Hollywood tape, where Trump could be heard boasting, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the p****.”

The next day, according to Pecker, Cohen and Davidson, Daniels threatened to go public with accusations that she'd had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006 in a Lake Tahoe hotel suite during a celebrity golf tournament.

In her testimony, Daniels said there was a “power imbalance” when, after leaving the suite’s restroom, she found Trump on the hotel bed in his underwear. That’s when, Daniels said, they had sex.

She testified that Trump had dangled a possible role on his TV show The Celebrity Apprentice. This detail — that the sex wasn’t entirely wanted — caused the defense to request a mistrial, which was denied. It also provided a motive for Trump to suppress the story. Prosecutors said, “Trump knew what happened in that hotel room” and didn’t want it to come out. The adult-film actor’s testimony also included intimate details of her alleged sexual encounter, some of which Judge Merchan agreed with the defense were not necessary.

As October 2016 drew to a close, Cohen testified, he frantically opened bank accounts and tried to come up with a way to pay the $130,000 to keep Daniels quiet. But Trump, Cohen said, wanted to delay the payment until after the election, with the idea that after the election, it wouldn’t matter whether Daniels was paid.

This point, that Trump was making the payment to influence the election by keeping women voters on board, was corroborated by a number of other witnesses. Hicks testified that Trump, by then in the White House, told her that it was better the story came out in 2018, rather than 2016.

Cohen ultimately wired the money himself to Daniels, with the understanding, he said, that he would be repaid by Trump. Cohen testified to a number of conversations with Trump, backed up by phone records, including on the day he wired the payments. But the defense rattled Cohen on cross-examination when it presented evidence that one of the calls that Cohen had said was made through Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller, was instead with Schiller about threats from a 14-year-old prankster.

Still, the heart of the case rested on the testimony of what happened after the election, when the records were falsified, in particular the handwritten notes and documents from the Trump Organization’s former comptroller, Jeff McConney.

McConney authenticated a key record: the bank statement showing Cohen’s wire transfer. That record included handwritten notes from Cohen and Trump’s former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, describing the $130,000 payment that would be “grossed up” to cover Cohen’s taxes. That sum, combined with another reimbursement and a bonus, for a total of $420,000, was paid out over 12 months at a rate of $35,000 per month.

The payments would be described as pursuant to a “legal retainer.” (Weisselberg, who is serving jail time for perjury in Trump’s civil fraud trial, did not testify.)

On the stand, Cohen described a repayment scheme that formed the basis of the 34 counts of falsified business records: 11 falsified invoices, 12 falsified ledger entries and 11 checks falsely recording the repayment as legal “retainers.” Nine of the checks were signed by Trump himself.

Cohen said he and Weisselberg met and discussed the agreement with Trump shortly before he left for Washington, on or about Jan. 17, 2020. Cohen said Trump approved the deal, saying at the end of the meeting that “it was going to be one heck of a ride” in Washington. Cohen said he and Trump discussed the arrangement again, in early February, in the Oval Office. Photos and White House records corroborated that the two met in the Oval Office at the time.

The defense presented just two witnesses, including Robert Costello, an attorney who wanted to represent Cohen after Cohen’s home and office were searched by the FBI in 2018. Costello had been put on the stand to refute Cohen’s claim that Costello was pressuring Cohen to stay on Trump’s “team.” But Costello’s emails showed that Trump was deciding which of Cohen’s lawyers he wanted to pay and that Costello was concerned about not giving “the appearance that we are following instructions from [Rudy] Giuliani or the president,” referring to the former New York City mayor who was Trump’s lawyer at the time.

How this conviction could affect the 2024 election

Trump has continually blasted any criminal charges he faces as “election interference” affecting his 2024 presidential campaign.

The hush money case likely is the only one of Trump’s four ongoing criminal cases that will be heard ahead of Election Day in November, since federal trials in Washington, D.C., and Florida, as well as a state case in Georgia, are in various stages of delays.

This decision in New York is likely to have rippling effects as Trump campaigns as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. For now, the other 54 criminal charges he faces have not turned off potential voters, and among some Republicans, the cases have bolstered support for him. However, a conviction may not play well with independent and swing voters.

The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, from May, showed that 17% of voters surveyed said they would be less likely to vote for Trump if he were convicted, while 15% said they would be more likely to vote for him. And 67% of registered voters nationally said it makes no difference to their vote if Trump is found guilty in his hush money trial.

Ian Sams, spokesperson for the White House counsel’s office, said in a statement: "We respect the rule of law, and have no additional comment.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Andrea Bernstein
[Copyright 2024 NPR]