Guilty on all counts: Trump criminal conviction makes history

Published May 31, 2024
Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks to speak to the press after he was convicted in his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 30, 2024 — AFP
Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks to speak to the press after he was convicted in his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 30, 2024 — AFP

Donald Trump on Thursday became the first former US president ever convicted of a crime after a New York jury found him guilty on all charges in his hush money case, months before an election that could see him yet return to the White House.

The jury found him guilty on each of the 34 counts of falsifying business records to hide a payment meant to silence porn star Stormy Daniels. He could in theory be sentenced to four years behind bars for each count but is more likely to receive probation.

The 77-year-old Republican, who was released without bail, is now a felon — a historic and startling first in a country where presidents are frequently described as the most powerful man in the world.

Trump, however, is not barred from continuing his battle to unseat President Joe Biden in November — even in the unlikely event he goes to prison.

His lawyer, Todd Blanche, said his team was eying an appeal “as soon as we can”. And Trump himself voiced immediate defiance.

“I’m a very innocent man,” Trump told reporters, vowing that the “real verdict” would come from voters on election day. He branded the trial “rigged” and a “disgrace”.

Biden’s campaign issued a statement saying the trial showed “no one is above the law”. It added that “the threat Trump poses to our democracy has never been greater”.

Judge Juan Merchan set sentencing for July 11 — four days before the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, where Trump is due to receive the party’s formal nomination.

The 12-member jury had deliberated for more than 11 hours over two days before the foreman read out the unanimous conclusion within a matter of minutes.

Merchan thanked the jurors for completing the “difficult and stressful task”. Their identities had been kept secret throughout proceedings, a rare practice more often seen in cases involving mafia or other violent defendants.

Trump also faces federal and state charges of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election won by Biden, and for hoarding secret documents after leaving the White House.

However, those trials — on far weightier alleged crimes — are unlikely to get underway before the presidential election.

Trump lashes out at ‘sick’ opponents in ‘unfair’ trial

Trump lashed out in rambling, angry comments at “sick” opponents and “fascists” after what he called a “very unfair” trial.

He confirmed he would appeal against the verdict, which he branded a “scam.” Trump spoke at what was billed as a press conference in the upscale lobby of his signature Trump Tower property in Manhattan.

But after taking to the podium, he launched into an extraordinary 35 minutes of insults, non-factual claims and non-sequiturs that reflected his seething anger. He then left without taking questions.

Judge Juan Merchan, who presided over his trial, is a “tyrant,” Trump said, claiming that Merchan “literally crucified” witnesses.

“This man who looks like an angel, but he is really a devil,” he said in the remarks, which were carried live by all the major US television networks.

In his speech, Trump frequently veered off from commenting on the trial into attacks on Biden and illegal immigrants, who he said were speaking “languages unknown” and included many terrorists, as well as “a lot of people” released from prisons.

“They’re coming in from all over the world into our country, and we have a president and a group of fascists that don’t want to do anything about it, because they could right now. Today, he could stop it. But he’s not. They’re destroying our country,” Trump said.

In his first brief comments since Thursday’s verdict, Biden posted on X that Trump was “threatening democracy” by attacking the US judicial system.

He later criticised Trump for claiming the US justice system was rigged.

“It’s dangerous, it’s irresponsible, for anyone to say this was rigged just because they don’t like the verdict,” Biden said at the White House, in his first remarks since the trial verdict.

“Our justice system, the justice system, should be respected. We should never allow anyone to tear it down. “

And Biden’s campaign issued a scathing statement describing Trump as “confused, desperate and defeated”.

“This man cannot be president,” the campaign said.

Reactions

The Kremlin said on Friday that Donald Trump’s guilty verdict showed that all legal and illegal means were being used in the US to get rid of political rivals, according to Reuters.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban posted on X, “I’ve known President Donald Trump to be a man of honour. As President, he always put America first, he commanded respect around the world and used this respect to build peace. Let the people make their verdict this November! Keep on fighting, Mr. President!”

British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said, “First and foremost, we respect the court’s decision in relation to the decision in the Trump case. There’s sentencing still to go and possible appeal, but we respect the court process.

“…We have a special relationship with the U.S. that transcends whoever the president is, but it is an unprecedented situation, no doubt about that,” he said.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and head of the League Party, took to X to protest the verdict. “Solidarity and full support for Donald Trump, victim of judicial harassment and a process of political nature.

“In Italy, we are sadly familiar with the weaponisation of the justice system by the left, given that for years attempts have been made to eliminate political opponents through legal means. I hope Trump wins; it would be a guarantee of greater balance and hope for world peace,” he added.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yorhimasa Hayashi said, “We would like to refrain from commenting on matters relating to judicial procedures in other countries.

“The Japanese government is not in a position to make comments with presumption about the impact on the (US) presidential election. In any event, we are closely monitoring related developments and will continue to gather information.”

Mel Stride, the UK’s work and pensions secretary told Sky News, “As a government cabinet minister, there is a long-held convention that we don’t interfere in elections overseas, so I really can’t comment on that particular question, in the same way we wouldn’t expect American politicians to start throwing comments in about our general election.”

“They are clearly dramatic, very dramatic turn of events and let’s wait to see what happens, but ultimately the choice will be for the American people […] in November”, he added.

Election conspiracy

Trump was convicted of falsifying business records to reimburse his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 payment to Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election, when her claim to have had sex with him could have proved fatal to his campaign against Hillary Clinton.

The trial featured lengthy testimony from the adult performer, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford and who described to the court in graphic detail what she says was a 2006 sexual encounter with the married Trump.

Prosecutors successfully laid out a case alleging the hush money and the illegal covering up of the payment was part of a broader crime to prevent voters from knowing about Trump’s behaviour.

Cohen, who was the key witness as a tainted former aide who had turned on his old boss, called the verdict “an important day for accountability and the rule of law.”

Trump has denied any sexual encounter with Stormy Daniels, but did not testify in his own defence. His lawyers argued that any payments made to the performer were entirely legal.

Campaigning from courthouse

The trial has distracted Trump in his campaign to unseat Biden. However, he milked the media attention throughout.

 Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes a fist after he was convicted in his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 30, 2024 — Reuters
Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes a fist after he was convicted in his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 30, 2024 — Reuters

Shortly after the verdict was issued, Trump’s campaign put out a fundraising appeal, titled “I am a political prisoner!”. He also announced he would make a public statement to journalists early on Friday.

Keith Gaddie, a political analyst and professor at Texas Christian University, said the political impact of the shocking events has yet to be determined.

“It probably doesn’t move a lot of votes, but in particular states with particular swing votes, it could matter around the margins. So in particularly tight races, it can tip things back from one direction to the other,” he said.

Trump, who made his name as a brash real estate mogul before a stunning ascent to the nation’s highest office in the 2016 election, most likely faces probation, because he is a first-time convict.

An appeal is all but certain, but could take months to complete.

Should he win the presidency he will not be able to pardon himself, given that the case was brought not by the federal government but by the state of New York, where only the governor could clear his name.

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