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New York jury finds Donald Trump guilty in New York hush-money trial

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Former United States President Donald Trump has been found guilty in a historic criminal hush-money trial, in a decision that could shake up the 2024 election campaign.

He has become the first US president, past or present, to be charged and convicted of a crime.

A New York City jury delivered the verdict on Thursday afternoon after a seven-week-long trial — and it found Trump guilty on all 34 counts he faced.

Prosecutors had called nearly two dozen witnesses to testify, and after closing arguments concluded on Tuesday, the jury took two days to render a verdict.

Trump was accused of 34 felony counts of falsifying business documents in relation to a hush-money payment made to adult film star Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Prosecutors argued that Trump attempted to cover up the payment in an effort to improve his chances in the race.

The former Republican president, who is set to face off against Democratic incumbent Joe Biden in November’s election, had pleaded not guilty.

He now faces a prison sentence of up to four years for each felony count, though court observers say it is unlikely he will face time behind bars, as opposed to probation or community service.

At the end of Thursday’s proceedings, a sentencing date was set for July 11, at the request of defence lawyer Todd Blanche. That hearing falls four days before the start of the Republican National Convention in Wisconsin, where Trump is expected to be officially recognised as the party’s presidential nominee.

Outside the courtroom, Trump briefly spoke to reporters, saying, “This was a rigged, disgraceful trial. The real verdict is going to be November 5, by the people. And they know what happened here.”

He also hinted at a much-anticipated appeal, reiterating that he is “a very innocent man”.

“We will fight for our constitution. This long from over. Thank you very much,” he said as he quickly turned and left.

Reporters, meanwhile, shouted questions as he walked away: “Why should voters vote for a convicted felon?” “Are you going to drop out?”

Lead-up to the verdict

Tensions were high in the courtroom in the lead-up to the jury’s decision. Moments before the jury announced it had reached a verdict, Judge Juan Merchan appeared prepared to wind down the closed-door deliberations for the day, announcing a cut-off at 4:30pm local time.

But at 4:20, a note from the jury arrived, announcing the impending verdict and asking for 30 more minutes to fill out forms.

A silence fell over the room. Judge Merchan warned the courtroom against any outbursts. In the audience sat District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who announced the 34-count indictment against Trump on April 4, 2023, as well as Trump’s supporters, including his son Eric.

As the guilty verdict was read, court observers noted that Trump looked emotionless, his eyes downcast.

But before the proceedings ended, Blanche, the defence lawyer, made a last-ditch effort to have the verdict nullified, citing what he called problems with key testimony from Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen.

“We move for a judgment of acquittal,” Blanche told Judge Merchan. “There’s no basis and no way this jury could have reached a verdict without accepting the testimony of Michael Cohen.”

The judge, however, quickly denied the motion, and with that, he thanked the jurors and ended the proceedings. “You’re excused with the gratitude of the court,” Merchan said.

The New York case was one of four criminal indictments Trump faced. It is likely to be the only one to go to trial before the November election.

Looking ahead to the election

Melanie Sloan, a former prosecutor and government ethics expert, told Al Jazeera the guilty verdict is likely to drive a wedge between Trump and more moderate constituencies.

“He knows this is a political problem. He knows there are a lot of Americans who might be willing to put up with a lot of stuff from Mr Trump, but convicted by a jury of 12? That might be a bridge too far for the independent voters who are on the fence about Donald Trump,” she said.

“They might have liked his economic policies, but they don’t like all the drama.”

Sloan also dismissed the notion that the trial was a politically motivated effort by members of the Biden administration to scuttle Trump’s election prospects.

“How can President Biden be behind any of this? This is a state court. President Biden didn’t appoint this judge, didn’t appoint this prosecutor. He has literally no role in a state prosecution.”

But Al Jazeera correspondent John Hendren pointed out that Trump’s base will nevertheless see political motives undergirding the conviction — and they may be galvanised by Thursday’s decision.

“It is interesting to see that so far nothing has really tainted his appeal among his diehard supporters,” he said.

“With each of the 91 charges he faces in each of four cases, his popularity actually rose among Republicans. So it hasn’t hurt him among them. What is likely to happen, though, is there are likely going to be people in the middle who might look at this differently.”

Reactions divided

Still, Republicans rallied to Trump’s support in the aftermath of the verdict, raising questions about the decision— and its political implications.

“Today is a shameful day in American history,” Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson said in a statement.

Like the defence team, Johnson questioned whether the testimony of Cohen, a disbarred lawyer and a former member of Trump’s inner circle, should have been allowed in court.

Cohen himself was convicted in 2018 over the hush-money payment and sentenced to prison. But given his proximity to Trump during the 2016 election — and his involvement in the hush-money deal — prosecutors relied on him to reveal the inner workings of Trump’s finances.

“Democrats cheered as they convicted the leader of the opposing party on ridiculous charges, predicated on the testimony of a disbarred, convicted felon,” Johnson said. “This was a purely political exercise, not a legal one.”

Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, reacted by calling the verdict evidence of the US’s decline.

“The Democrats have succeeded in their years long attempt to turn America into a third-world ****hole,” he wrote on social media, using an expletive. He appealed to voters to back his father: “November 5 is our last chance to save it.”

Members of the Biden campaign likewise used the verdict to rally voters, highlighting the decision in the context of the election.

“In New York today, we saw that no one is above the law,” campaign communications director Michael Tyler said in a statement.

“But today’s verdict does not change the fact that the American people face a simple reality. There is still only one way to keep Donald Trump out of the Oval Office: at the ballot box.”

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