Donald Trump becomes first former US president to be convicted of felony

Donald Trump has become the first former US president to be convicted of a felony after a grand jury in New York found him guilty on 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up a payment to silence a porn star ahead of the 2016 presidential election
Donald Trump, former US President
Donald Trump, former US President

New York/Washington | Donald Trump has become the first former US president to be convicted of a felony after a grand jury in New York found him guilty on 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up a payment to silence a porn star ahead of the 2016 presidential election, mounting his legal challenges amidst his bid to return to the White House in November.

In a historic verdict, a panel of 12 Manhattan jurors on Thursday said they unanimously agreed that Trump, 77, falsified business records to conceal a USD 130,000 hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels to influence the 2016 contest.

The decision came after about a day and a half of deliberations.

The conviction does not prevent Trump from standing in November's election, but he is almost certain to appeal against it regardless.

Over a six-week trial, the court heard from 22 witnesses, including Daniels, whose alleged sexual encounter with the former president was at the centre of the case.

As the verdicts were read, Trump remained silent and still. But the former president spoke to reporters outside the courtroom, calling the trial a "rigged, disgraceful trial" and saying that the "real verdict" will be rendered on Election Day.

Prosecutors had argued that, by approving a scheme to disguise the money as legal expenses, Trump broke election law.

Trump's sentencing is scheduled for July 11, four days before the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he will be formally nominated as the party's presidential candidate against incumbent Joe Biden, an 81-year-old Democrat, in the November 5 elections.

For now, Trump has been released without having to pay bail.

"This was a disgrace. This was a rigged trial by a conflicted judge who was corrupt. It's a rigged trial, a disgrace. They wouldn't give us a venue change. We were at 5 per cent or 6 per cent in this district, in this area. This was a rigged, disgraceful trial,” said Trump shortly after the verdict was read.

“The real verdict is going to be November 5th by the people. And they know what happened here, and everybody knows what happened here. You have a Soros-backed DA, and the whole thing, we didn't do a thing wrong. I'm a very innocent man, and it's okay, I'm fighting for our country. I'm fighting for our Constitution. Our whole country is being rigged right now,” Trump said.

Trump alleged that this was done by the Biden administration to wound or hurt a political opponent.

“And I think it's just a disgrace. And we'll keep fighting. We'll fight till the end, and we'll win because our country has gone to hell,' he said.

No former president or presumptive party nominee in the US has ever faced a felony conviction.

During the trial, the prosecution set out to prove that Trump had falsified records when he repaid his former lawyer Michael Cohen for a hush-money payment to Daniels.

They said he had recorded the reimbursements as legal expenses to circumvent campaign finance laws.

Todd Blanche, Trump's lead lawyer, told Justice Juan Merchan that the court should not allow the verdict, arguing that Cohen committed perjury on the stand.

The Trump team's motion to acquit, however, was denied by Justice Merchan.

The Biden Harris campaign welcomed the jury's verdict. “In New York today, we saw that no one is above the law,” said Biden-Harris 2024 Communications Director Michael Tyler.

“Donald Trump has always mistakenly believed he would never face consequences for breaking the law for his gain. 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. Convicted felon or not, Trump will be the Republican nominee for president,” he said.

“The threat Trump poses to our democracy has never been greater. He is running an increasingly unhinged campaign of revenge and retribution, pledging to be a dictator ‘on day one' and calling for our Constitution to be ‘terminated' so he can regain and keep power. A second Trump term means chaos, ripping away Americans' freedoms and fomenting political violence - and the American people will reject it this November,” Tyler said.

University of California, Los Angeles law professor Richard L Hasen – one of the country's leading experts on election law – has consistently said that nothing in the US Constitution bars a convicted criminal from running for the nation's highest office.

“Legally, nothing changes with Trump's status as a candidate,” Hasen wrote in his Election Law Blog on Thursday.

“The Constitution contains only limited qualifications for running for office (being at least 35 years old, a natural born citizen, and at least 14 years a resident of the US),” Hasen continued.

Additionally, states cannot disqualify Trump from running due to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election due to the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year, Hasen said, “and they cannot add qualifications such as removing convicted felons off the ballot.” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg dodged a question about whether he would seek jail time when Trump is sentenced on July 11.

“We will speak at that time,” Bragg said.

Bragg also declined to say whether he would oppose a request from Trump to remain free while he appeals the verdict. Bragg said prosecutors would respond formally at sentencing on July 11.

“I'm going to let our words in court speak for themselves,” Bragg said.

In a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, Cohen said that the verdict was an "important day for accountability and the rule of law".

"The truth always matters," he added.

It is unclear how the verdict will affect the presidential race, although some polls have previously suggested voters in several key swing states would be less likely to vote for Trump if he had a criminal conviction.

The former president faces three other criminal cases, including two of alleged election interference. Trump has pleaded not guilty in all of the cases. None of them have trial dates scheduled, and legal experts largely concur that it's unlikely that any will begin before election day.

The verdict came more than a year after a grand jury indicted Trump on March 30, 2023, marking the first time a former or sitting president faced criminal charges.

Republicans dismissed the indictment as an overreach of power by Democratic District Attorney Bragg.

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