Donald Trump is guilty on all 34 counts of doctoring business records to cover up a hush-money scheme before the 2016 election, making him the first former U.S. president to be criminally convicted, mere months before he aims to recapture the White House.

A New York jury convicted Mr. Trump on Thursday of falsifying the records in order to hide a US$130,000 payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels. Jurors found that the falsifications were made to further violations of campaign-finance and tax laws, which makes the counts felonies.

The payment was meant to help Mr. Trump’s presidential bid, prosecutors argued, and was therefore an illegal campaign contribution.

The state conviction could result in prison time, but any sentence will likely be stayed pending appeal – and an appeal probably wouldn’t be decided until after the Nov. 5 election date.

It all means that when U.S. voters go to the polls, they will almost certainly have to decide whether to be governed by a convicted felon. But it remains to be seen what effect, if any, the verdict will have on the neck-and-neck rematch between Mr. Trump and President Joe Biden.

“This was a disgrace. This was a rigged trial,” Mr. Trump declared to reporters in the hallway outside the courtroom shortly after the verdict. “This is long from over.”

Moments later, his campaign blasted out a fundraising appeal under his name declaring “I am a political prisoner!” in all caps and asking for money to stop “total tyranny.”

Justice Juan Merchan will sentence the former president on July 11, just four days before the Republican National Convention gathers in Milwaukee to formally nominate Mr. Trump for office.

The seven-man, five-woman jury deliberated for part of the day on Wednesday and all day Thursday, stopping only to ask for Justice Merchan’s explanations of the law to be repeated to them and for testimony about witness conversations with Mr. Trump to be read back.

Justice Merchan was just about to dismiss jurors for the day at 4:30 p.m. when they instead informed him they had reached a verdict. Mr. Trump sat stone-faced as the jury foreman repeated “guilty” 34 times. He indicated that he planned to appeal.

District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the official who chose to bring the charges, said Mr. Trump had tried to “corrupt” an election with the hush-money payment. “This defendant may be unlike any other in American history,” he said at a news conference after the conviction. “Our job is to follow the facts without fear or favour.”

The former president also faces three other criminal prosecutions: one federal and one at the state level for trying to overturn the 2020 election, and one federal prosecution for refusing to return classified documents after he left office. Those trials, however, are unlikely to start before the vote this year.

If he returns to the presidency, Mr. Trump is expected to have the federal cases stopped and attempt to have the remaining state case stayed. He may also attempt to give himself an absolute pardon on all federal crimes.

Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign wasted no time arguing that the conviction raised the stakes in the President’s bid to keep Mr. Trump from returning to office. In an e-mail soliciting campaign contributions, Mr. Biden wrote: “There’s only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: At the ballot box.”

The historic case, which marked the first time a former president had faced a criminal trial, unfolded over the past month-and-a-half in a Lower Manhattan courtroom. It concerned a plot to stop Ms. Daniels from going public with her story of sex with a married Mr. Trump. The court heard Mr. Trump wanted the tale suppressed to avoid damaging his 2016 presidential bid.

Michael Cohen, who was Mr. Trump’s lawyer and fixer at the time, made the payment to Ms. Daniels the month before the 2016 election and was later paid back by Mr. Trump. Ms. Daniels signed a nondisclosure agreement meant to stop her from repeating her story about the adulterous liaison, which she says happened at a 2006 celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe. Mr. Trump denies he had sex with Ms. Daniels.

Mr. Trump, the court heard, paid Mr. Cohen back with a series of cheques over the following year. In Mr. Cohen’s invoices, Mr. Trump’s cheques and his company’s books, the payments were recorded as a legal retainer. Prosecutors charged that this was a deliberate falsification to disguise the true purpose of the money.

To make the case that the falsifications were felonies meant to cover up other illegal activity, prosecutors argued the payments had broken both election and tax laws. They cast the payment as part of a larger scheme to illegally influence the election by suppressing negative stories about Mr. Trump.

David Pecker, the former publisher of the National Enquirer, testified that his supermarket tabloid business paid two other people, former Playboy bunny Karen McDougal and former Trump Tower doorman Dino Sajudin, to keep their stories about Mr. Trump quiet. Mr. Pecker also admitted to fabricating negative stories about Mr. Trump’s political opponents.

All of it, Mr. Pecker said, was done as part of an agreement between himself, Mr. Trump and Mr. Cohen to help Mr. Trump win the election.

Mr. Trump’s defence maintained there was nothing illegal about the payoff and that Mr. Trump’s direct involvement in it was not proved. His lead defence lawyer, Todd Blanche, furiously attacked the credibility of Mr. Cohen.

The maximum penalty for each of Mr. Trump’s convictions is four years in prison. He will almost certainly ask that his sentence be stayed until his appeals are decided. There are two levels of appeal in New York and, if he loses those, Mr. Trump would likely also ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

Randy Zelin, a New York expert in white-collar crime, said a conviction such as Mr. Trump’s would be unlikely to result in prison time. “As a first-time offender for what is, ostensibly, a victimless crime, you’d probably be looking at a conditional discharge or maybe probation,” said Mr. Zelin, a criminal defence lawyer and lecturer at Cornell University’s law school..

John Coffee, a Columbia University law professor, said there is still a chance, however, that Mr. Trump’s penalty might deviate from the usual result for such a conviction in the state. “This is not a normal case. The judge may feel it’s important to reinforce that ancient precept that no man is above the law by giving a nominal prison sentence of six months or less,” he said.

Justice Merchan could also impose conditions at Mr. Trump’s sentencing, such as limiting his travel, which could cramp his campaign.

More uncertain is how the conviction will scramble the election.

It could bolster Mr. Biden’s efforts to reassemble his broad 2020 voting coalition. Polling has suggested that moderates, in particular, could have their votes swayed by the outcome of the former president’s criminal troubles. Mr. Trump, for his part, has already tried to cast his legal troubles as further proof the political establishment is out to get him.

Elaine Kamarck, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said the most significant electoral effect of the trial may not actually be the verdict. Rather, the detailed accusations of infidelity aired in court could turn some female voters away from Mr. Trump.

“The picture that comes out of the trial is of a very sleazy guy who had an affair while his wife was home with a baby and told people he didn’t care about her, that what he cared about was the election,” she said.

Ms. Kamarck, who worked in the White House during Bill Clinton’s administration, pointed to Mr. Clinton’s affair with an intern as a contributing factor in Al Gore’s narrow loss of the subsequent presidential election, when he lost the vote of married women.

Over the objections of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Ms. Daniels’s testimony went into detail about the alleged sex, including that the real estate magnate, she said, did not wear a condom, and that she felt an “imbalance of power” during the encounter.

Of the other cases against Mr. Trump, one, a federal prosecution for trying to overturn the election, is on hold in Washington while the Supreme Court decides Mr. Trump’s claim of absolute presidential immunity.

The other federal case, over nuclear secrets and other classified documents at Mr. Trump’s Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, has also been put on indefinite hold after delays by Trump-appointed judge Aileen Cannon.

A state-level elections case in Georgia, meanwhile, is currently tied up in an appeal by Mr. Trump and his co-defendants to have the district attorney, Fani Willis, thrown off the file for having a relationship with one of the prosecutors.

The Globe and Mail, May 30, 2024