History in a Courtroom

For the first time in history, a former US president was convicted last week on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to cover up a sex scandal he thought would destroy his 2016 campaign for the White House.  Can it affect his bid for another term as president?

By Kenneth Tiven

After two days of deliberations, all the 12 jurors pronounced a guilty verdict in the case, collectively and individually. The case, held in a New York State criminal court, revolved around a $1,30,000 payment made to keep a porn star from talking about hotel sex she had with Donald Trump in 2006. Business records were falsified to cover up a campaign rules violation.

However, none of this is likely to cause Republican political leadership to replace Trump as their 2024 presidential candidate for November election. The reason is simple: Trump, 77, dominates all leadership positions in the party, while Republican politicians are so afraid of Trump supporters that they have genuflected on demand. Further, nothing in the US Constitution or the law prohibits a convicted felon from running and being elected as the president.

The jurors spent no more than ten hours over two days to decide their unanimous decision. They heard descriptions of secret deals, scandals and Oval Office deals which echoed some of what marked the Watergate saga for which Richard Nixon resigned nearly 50 years ago. Trump sat expressionless, looking very glum. Then he came outside to complain to news cameras, saying the real judgment would be on election day, November 5.

Trump has complained for four years that he lost because the 2020 election was stolen. His effort this year is to regain the White House and extract retribution from those he says wronged him. He now has the dubious honour of being the first US president to be judged a felon after finishing his first and only term. His core supporters claim the case is a political hit job by Democrats as they said about his two impeachment trials in the Senate. Both failed to reach a conviction.

His sentencing is scheduled for July 11, just a few days before the Republican nominating convention. Trump will appeal this as he has appealed every legal case in the last 40 years. His legal delay tactics has forced all the other federal and state cases related to the 2020 election until after the November 2024 election. However, if he wins presidential immunity for four more years it will be a get-out-of-jail card he is desperate to gain.

Over the six-week trial, the court heard from 22 witnesses, including Stormy Daniels, whose alleged sexual encounter with the former president was at the centre of the case and also Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer/fixer who paid the hush money, but later turned against his former boss. Trump called the verdict a “disgrace”, adding: “We’ll fight to the end.”

Prosecutors had argued that by approving a scheme to disguise the money as legal expenses Trump broke election law. His sentencing will come just days before the start of the Republican National Convention, when he is due to be confirmed as the party’s candidate to face Joe Biden, the Democratic incumbent, in November. While he could in theory face prison, a financial penalty is seen as the more likely punishment. 

For now, Trump has been released without having to pay bail. Amid a massive police presence outside court afterwards, Trump said: “This was a disgrace. This was a rigged trial by a conflicted judge who was corrupt.” He added that the “real verdict” was “going to be 5 November by the people” and that “this is long from over”. As he spoke, hundreds of onlookers gathered and a helicopter circled overhead.

At a news conference, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg declined to comment on whether he would seek a prison term for Trump. Asked about criticism of the case—his predecessor had opted not to bring the charges against Trump—the Democratic prosecutor said: “I did my job”. Our job is to follow the facts without fear or favour, and that’s what we did here.”

It is unclear how the verdict will affect the presidential race, although some polls have previously suggested that voters in several key swing states would be less likely to vote for Trump if he had a criminal conviction. If Trump were to defeat Biden, he would become the first convicted criminal to occupy the White House. 

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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