Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York, on Thursday. Trump has been convicted of falsifying records to cover up a sex scandal that threatened his ascent to the White House in 2016, part of a scheme that prosecutors described as a fraud on the American people. He is the first American president to be declared a felon. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York, on Thursday. Trump has been convicted of falsifying records to cover up a sex scandal that threatened his ascent to the White House in 2016, part of a scheme that prosecutors described as a fraud on the American people. He is the first American president to be declared a felon. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

Trump guilty on all 34 counts in hush-money case

First U.S. president to be declared a felon after trial for falsifying records involving sex scandal

  • By Ben Protess, Jonah E. Bromwich and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times
  • Thursday, May 30, 2024 4:35pm
  • NewsDonald Trump

NEW YORK — Donald Trump was convicted Thursday of falsifying records to cover up a sex scandal that threatened to derail his 2016 presidential campaign, capping an extraordinary trial that tested the resilience of the U.S. justice system and transformed the former commander in chief into a felon.

The guilty verdict in Manhattan — across the board, on all 34 counts — will reverberate throughout the nation and the world as it ushers in a new era of presidential politics. Trump will carry the stain of the verdict during his third run for the White House as voters now choose between an unpopular incumbent and a convicted criminal.

While it was once unthinkable that Americans would elect a felon as their leader, Trump’s insurgent behavior delights his supporters as he bulldozes the country’s norms. Now, the man who refused to accept his 2020 election loss is already seeking to delegitimize his conviction, attempting to assert the primacy of his raw political power over the nation’s rule of law.

Trump showed little emotion inside the courtroom as he learned his fate, but when he emerged, holding his jaw tense, the former president spoke to the assembled television cameras. He declared that the verdict was “a disgrace” and, with a somber expression, proclaimed: “The real verdict is going to be Nov. 5, by the people,” referring to Election Day.

The judge overseeing the case, Juan M. Merchan, will sentence Trump on July 11, just days before the Republican National Convention convenes and makes him the party’s nominee, and could impose a prison term of up to four years. But Trump could receive probation instead, and may never see the inside of a prison cell. He has vowed to appeal, and will remain free at least until sentencing, campaigning for the presidency while he awaits his punishment.

A jury of 12 New Yorkers needed two days of deliberations to decide a case stemming from Trump’s first White House run, when, prosecutors say, he perpetrated a fraud on the American people. The case — colored by tabloid intrigue, secret payoffs and an Oval Office pact that echoed the Watergate era — spotlighted months of scheming that begot a hush-money payment to a porn actor and a plot to falsify documents to bury all trace of that deal.

“Guilty,” the foreman declared 34 times, one for each false record, before he and his fellow jurors, whose names were withheld from the public for their safety, filed out of the courtroom.

Over weeks of testimony, the jury met a varied cast of characters, including a tabloid maestro, a campaign spokesperson and the porn actor, Stormy Daniels. Their testimony built to an epic showdown between the men at the heart of the case: Trump, a real estate mogul turned reality-television impresario who exported his smash-mouth instincts to presidential politics; and the star witness against him, Michael Cohen, the do-anything fixer whose loyalty he lost.

In the waning days of the 2016 campaign, Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 to silence her story of a sexual liaison with Trump, who then agreed to “cook the books” to reimburse his fixer, prosecutors said. Defense lawyers attacked Cohen’s credibility — he is a “convicted liar,” they noted — and argued that Trump had never falsified any records.

But in closing arguments, a prosecutor noted that Cohen had told his lies for Trump. “We didn’t choose Michael Cohen to be our witness; we didn’t pick him up at the witness store,” said the prosecutor, Joshua Steinglass, adding that the former president had hired him “because he was willing to lie and cheat on Mr. Trump’s behalf.”

Trump, who repeatedly violated a judge’s order barring him from attacking Cohen and the jury, attended every day of the trial in a lower Manhattan courthouse that had long ago lost its majesty — a fading hulk with cracked wood paneling and yellowed fluorescent lighting that suited the case’s seedier elements. There, in the center of a city justice system that accommodates all manner of mayhem, the former president glowered, muttered and often closed his eyes, spending much of the trial either in a meditative state or apparently asleep.

Trump still faces three other indictments, but with those cases mired in delays, this was likely to be his only trial before Election Day. The other prosecutions concern loftier issues — Trump is charged with mishandling classified documents in Florida and plotting to subvert democracy in Washington and Georgia — but this trial sprang from the seamy milieu that had made him famous as a New York gossip-page fixture.

The conviction — a humiliating defeat for a man who has dwelled in legal gray zones for decades — brings the nation’s highest office to a new low: Trump is the first president to lose, or even to face, a criminal trial.

The prosecution unfolded against the backdrop of a politically polarized nation, and reactions to the verdict could reflect that divide.

Trump’s adversaries have long hoped a conviction would wipe the former president from the political map. For them, the case could represent a rare moment of catharsis: comeuppance for a man who, in their minds, poisoned the institution of the presidency.

To Trump’s base, however, he remains not just a man but a movement, and the more legal tumult he endures, the more his supporters revere him.

On the campaign trail, Trump is expected to harness that image of an outlaw idol, using his conviction to paint himself as a political prisoner and the victim of a Democratic cabal. During the trial, he cast the jurors as 12 angry liberals from a hometown that had turned against him, even though they were participating in a tradition so central to American democracy that it is older than the presidency itself. And he attacked the elected Democratic prosecutor who brought the case, Alvin Bragg, falsely claiming he was an extension of President Joe Biden’s campaign.

Trump’s lawyers seized on the novel nature of Bragg’s case. In New York, falsifying records is a misdemeanor, unless they were faked to hide another crime. To elevate the charges to felonies, Bragg argued that Trump had falsified the records to conceal an illegal conspiracy to influence the 2016 election.

The defense argued that Bragg was stretching the law, deploying a little-known state statute in a case involving a federal election. That approach could, they argue, lay the groundwork for an appeal.

Trump’s lead lawyer, Todd Blanche, also sought to play down the importance of the case, deriding the false records as mere “pieces of paper.”

Yet the verdict is a career-defining victory for Bragg, who had cast the fakery as an affront to New York, the financial capital of the world.

“The bedrock, in fact, the basis for business integrity and a well-functioning business marketplace is true and accurate record-keeping,” Bragg said when announcing the case last year.

The Conspiracy

Five years ago, when Bragg announced his run for district attorney, he vowed to shake up the criminal justice system in Manhattan. No more, he said, would there be two systems — one for the rich and one for everyone else. He then brought a difficult case against the 45th president, charging Trump, as he would any other defendant, with the innocuous-sounding crime of falsifying business records.

Trump was convicted of 34 felony counts of that charge, one for each document he falsified as he reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 hush-money payment to Daniels. The records included 11 invoices Cohen submitted, 12 entries in Trump’s ledger and 11 checks sent to the former fixer.

Trump signed nine of the checks from the White House, his own outsize Sharpie signature sealing his fate.

The documents, prosecutors argued, disguised the nature of the repayment to Cohen. There were no references to the hush money, only to ordinary legal expenses that arose from a “retainer” agreement.

Blanche argued that the records were accurate — Cohen, after all, was a lawyer who had expenses — but the prosecution showed that the expenses and the retainer were both fictional. Blanche also sought to minimize the election plot, asserting that “every campaign in this country is a conspiracy.” But Bragg argued that the American people were victims, deprived of important information about the candidate, and that the tactics of Trump’s 2016 campaign were not only distasteful, but unlawful.

Bragg’s prosecutors, eliciting lurid testimony of sex and scandal, persuaded the jury that Trump had orchestrated a conspiracy with Cohen and David Pecker, the former publisher of The National Enquirer, to buy and bury stories that could have upended his candidacy. It began with a meeting in summer 2015 at Trump’s midtown Manhattan headquarters — prosecutors called it “the Trump Tower conspiracy” — and ran through Election Day 2016.

Pecker, the prosecution’s leadoff witness, nonchalantly explained to the jurors how the co-conspirators had soon confronted salacious stories about the candidate’s sex life.

The first came from a doorman at a Trump building who had heard a false rumor that Trump had fathered a child out of wedlock. Another belonged to a former Playboy model who said she had carried on a monthslong affair with Trump. Pecker bought both of those stories and never published them, a practice known as “catch and kill,” a dark art in the supermarket tabloid world.

After the election, Pecker testified, Trump summoned him to Trump Tower. There, the president-elect, having just met with the head of the FBI, thanked Pecker for burying the stories.

Trump was supposed to repay Pecker, and prosecutors played a surreptitious recording that Cohen had made of Trump, who wanted to buy all the dirt that The Enquirer had accumulated on him over the years, in case something happened to the publisher or his tabloid.

“Maybe he gets hit by a truck,” Trump said, instructing Cohen to “pay with cash.”

The Porn Actor

Pecker ultimately refused Trump’s payment, worried that it might implicate him in a crime.

And he wanted nothing to do with purchasing the third and most troublesome story — Daniels’ account of sex with Trump. She was shopping it at a vulnerable moment for the Trump campaign, just as the world heard a recording in which he boasted about grabbing women by the genitals. The tape, from the set of “Access Hollywood,” sent the campaign into a frenzy, according to testimony from Hope Hicks, its former spokesperson.

Hicks, who teared up on the stand, took jurors behind the campaign’s scenes as Trump careened from one crisis to the next. He denied Daniels’ story, telling Hicks it was “absolutely, unequivocally untrue.” (He denies it still, and Blanche portrayed Daniels as an extortionist.)

The week after Hicks testified, Daniels showed up to contradict Trump from the stand, offering a graphic recounting. In riveting testimony, she described how he had summoned her for dinner inside a palatial Lake Tahoe, Nevada, hotel suite in 2006. She returned from the bathroom and found Trump in his boxer shorts and T-shirt, she said. Then, they had sex.

“I was staring up at the ceiling, wondering how I got there,” she told the jury, adding that the act was brief and that Trump did not wear a condom.

Daniels said that when she asked Trump about his wife, he told her not to worry, that they didn’t even sleep in the same room — testimony that prompted Trump to shake his head in disgust and mutter “bullshit” to his lawyers. His outburst was loud enough that it later drew a rebuke from Merchan, who called it “contemptuous.”

The former president’s lawyers, cross-examining Daniels, sought to paint her as an opportunist capitalizing on a fiction, noting that she had sold “Team Stormy” T-shirts, a $40 “Patron Saint of Indictments” candle and even a comic book dramatizing her clash with the former president.

“You’re celebrating the indictment by selling things from your store, right?” a defense lawyer asked.

“Not unlike Mr. Trump,” Daniels replied, perhaps a reference to the $59.99 Bible he is peddling.

The sordid elements of her testimony had little bearing on the charges of faked business records. Her payoff did. In a crucial passage of testimony, Daniels confirmed that she had “accepted an offer” from Cohen to stay silent.

The Showdown

Even that did not prove that Trump had falsified records to disguise his reimbursement of Cohen. For that, the prosecution needed Cohen himself.

During his decade as a Trump henchman, Cohen distinguished himself with his volatility. On the stand, however, he was mostly steady, and he offered jurors the only direct link between the former president and the false records.

Cohen testified that, just days before Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, he had met with the president-elect at Trump Tower. There, he said, Trump gave his blessing to a simple way to hide the payoff while making Cohen whole: pretend the reimbursement was for legal work. Trump’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, handled the details, but as was customary, Cohen testified, “the boss” granted permission.

During closing arguments, the prosecution sought to corroborate Cohen’s account, producing what one prosecutor called “the smoking guns” of the case: Weisselberg’s handwritten notes about the reimbursement. The jotting appeared on a copy of Cohen’s bank statement — the very one showing that Cohen had paid off Daniels.

“Did Mr. Weisselberg say in front of Mr. Trump that those monthly payments would be, you know, like a retainer for legal services?” Susan Hoffinger, one of the prosecutors, asked Cohen.

“Yes,” he said.

“What, if anything, did Mr. Trump say at that time?” she also asked.

“He approved it,” Cohen replied, noting that Trump had then added: “This is going to be one heck of a ride in D.C.”

The plot reached into the Oval Office, where Cohen said he met again with Trump, who promised that a check would soon arrive.

A year later, they had a falling-out after the hush-money deal came to light in The Wall Street Journal, and Cohen pleaded guilty to federal crimes involving the hush money. Trump washed his hands of Cohen, who turned on the man he had once idolized.

During Cohen’s testimony, Trump brought his campaign to the courtroom, summoning an entourage of supporters to sit in the rows behind the defense table. The guests included the speaker of the House and other members of Congress, his adult sons, actor Joe Piscopo and a former leader of the New York chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

With Cohen on the stand, Blanche assailed his credibility — highlighting his criminal record, his pattern of lies and his obsession with exacting revenge on Trump. Blanche also argued that Cohen had profited from his hatred for Trump with two books and a lucrative podcast deal. He played the jury an excerpt from the podcast in which the former fixer sounded nearly maniacal as he reveled in the news of Trump’s 2023 indictment in the case.

“I truly hope that this man ends up in prison,” Cohen said giddily.

On the stand, Cohen was more subdued. He bent, but did not break under the pressure. And when the prosecution questioned him a second time, he stuck to his testimony that Trump had approved the scheme to falsify the records.

“When you submitted each of your 11 invoices,” Hoffinger asked, “was that true or false?”

“It was false,” Cohen confirmed.

And the check stubs that reflected a supposed retainer?

“False.”

Blanche argued that Trump had signed the checks without paying them much mind, and that Cohen was responsible for the invoices. But the prosecution highlighted evidence that portrayed Trump as a micromanager who would never miss that sort of detail, including Trump’s own books, which contained a chapter called “How to Pinch Pennies” and the advice “always question invoices.”

The criminal conviction capped a brutal stretch of legal defeats for Trump in New York. He started the year in a federal courthouse, where a jury found him liable for defaming writer E. Jean Carroll when he claimed he hadn’t sexually abused her, and ordered him to pay her more than $80 million. The next month, a judge concluded that Trump had fraudulently inflated his net worth to win favorable financial deals, and imposed a judgment of more than $450 million.

While those cases delivered devastating personal financial blows, only Bragg’s trial could send the former president to prison, and the United States into an era of uncertainty.

“This is long from over,” Trump declared Thursday, minutes after his conviction.

• This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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