What you should know about Donald Trump’s conviction in his hush money trial

Sentencing brings the prospect of a prison sentence.

Former President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)
Former President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool) (Seth Wenig/AP)

Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 felony counts marks the end of the former president’s historic hush money trial but the fight over the case is far from over.

Now comes the sentencing and the prospect of a prison sentence, a lengthy appeal process, and all the while, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee still has to deal with three more criminal cases and a campaign that could see him return to the White House.

The Manhattan jury found Trump guilty of falsifying business records after more than nine hours of deliberations over two days in the case stemming from a hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump angrily denounced the trial as a “disgrace”, telling reporters he’s an “innocent man”.

Some key takeaways from the jury’s decision:

– Prison time?

The big question is whether Trump could go to prison. The answer is uncertain. Judge Juan M Merchan set sentencing for July 11, just days before Republicans are set to formally nominate him for president.

The charge of falsifying business records is a Class E felony in New York, the lowest tier of felony charges in the state. It is punishable by up to four years in prison, though the punishment would be up to the judge and there is no guarantee he would give Trump time behind bars.

It is unclear to what extent the judge may factor in the political and logistical complexities of jailing a former president who is running to reclaim the White House. Other punishments could include a fine or probation, and it’s possible the judge would allow Trump to avoid serving any punishment until after he exhausts his appeals.

The conviction does not bar Trump from continuing his campaign. His daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who is co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said on Thursday that if Trump is convicted and sentenced to home confinement, he would do virtual rallies and campaign events.

– Avenues for appeal

After Trump is sentenced, he can challenge his conviction in an appellate division of the state’s trial court and possibly the state’s highest court. Trump’s lawyers have already been laying the groundwork for appeals with objections to the charges and rulings at trial.

The defence accused the judge of bias, citing his daughter’s work heading a firm whose clients have included President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other Democrats. The judge refused a defence request to remove himself from the case, saying he was certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial”.

Judge Juan M Merchan (Seth Wenig/AP)
Judge Juan M Merchan (Seth Wenig/AP) (Seth Wenig/AP)

Trump’s lawyers may also raise on appeal the judge’s ruling limiting the evidence of a potential expert witness. The defence wanted to call Bradley Smith, a Republican law professor who served on the Federal Election Commission, to rebut the prosecution’s contention that the hush money payments amounted to campaign finance violations.

But the judge ruled he could give general background on the FEC but could not interpret how federal campaign finance laws apply to the facts of Trump’s case or whether Trump’s alleged actions violated those laws.

There are often guardrails around expert evidence on legal matters, on the basis that it is up to a judge — not an expert hired by one side or the other — to instruct jurors on applicable laws.

The defence may also argue that jurors were improperly allowed to hear sometimes graphic evidence from Stormy Daniels about her alleged sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. The defence unsuccessfully pushed for a mistrial over the tawdry details prosecutors elicited from Ms Daniels.

Lawyer Todd Blanche argued Ms Daniels’ description of a power imbalance with the older, taller Trump, was a “dog whistle for rape”, irrelevant to the charges at hand, and “the kind of testimony that makes it impossible to come back from”.

– A sparse defence

The former president’s lawyers called just two witnesses, including lawyer and former federal prosecutor Robert Costello. The defence sought to use him to discredit prosecutors’ star witness, Michael Cohen, the Trump lawyer-turned-adversary who directly implicated Trump in the hush money scheme.

But the move may have backfired because it opened the door for prosecutors to question Mr Costello about a purported pressure campaign aimed at keeping Cohen loyal to Trump after the FBI raided Cohen’s property in April 2018.

Michael Cohen (Seth Wenig/AP)
Michael Cohen (Seth Wenig/AP) (Seth Wenig/AP)

While Mr Costello buoyed the defence by saying Cohen denied to him that Trump knew anything about the 130,000-dollar (£100,000) hush money payment to Ms Daniels, Mr Costello had few answers when prosecutor Susan Hoffinger confronted him with emails he sent to Cohen in which he repeatedly dangled his close ties to Trump ally Rudy Giuliani.

In one email, Mr Costello told Cohen: “Sleep well tonight. you have friends in high places,” and relayed that there were “some very positive comments about you from the White House”.

Cohen largely kept his cool on the witness stand in the face of heated cross-examination by the defence, who tried to paint him as a liar with a vendetta against his former boss. The curt, pugnacious Mr Costello, on the other hand, aggravated the judge — at times in view of the jury — but continued to speak after objections and rolling his eyes.

At one point, after sending the jury out of the room, the judge became enraged when he said Mr Costello was staring him down. Judge Merchan then briefly cleared the courtroom of reporters and scolded Mr Costello, warning that if he misbehaved again, he would be removed from the courtroom and his evidence would be stricken.

– Laying the groundwork for a loss

While projecting confidence, Trump and his campaign spent weeks trying to undermine the case ahead of a potential conviction. He repeatedly called the whole system “rigged” — a term he used to similarly used to falsely describe the election he lost to Mr Biden in 2020.

“Mother Teresa could not beat these charges,” he said on Wednesday, invoking the Catholic nun and saint as jury deliberations began.

Trump lambasted the judge, insulted Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, and complained about members of the prosecution team. He has tried to paint the case as nothing more than a politically motivated witch hunt.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden (Alex Brandon/AP)

Trump’s criticism also extended to choices seemingly made by his own legal team. He railed that “a lot of key witnesses were not called” by the prosecution – even though his side chose to call only two witnesses.

He has also complained about being restricted from speaking about aspects of the case by a gag order, but chose not to give evidence. Instead of subjecting himself to the risks of perjury and cross-examination, Trump focused on the court of public opinion and the voters who will ultimately decide his fate.

– What it means for the election

In a deeply divided America, it is unclear whether Trump’s status as a person convicted of a felony will have any impact on the election.

Leading strategists in both parties believe he remains well-positioned to defeat Mr Biden, even as he faces the prospect of a prison sentence and three separate criminal cases still outstanding.

In the short term, there were immediate signs that the guilty verdict was helping to unify the Republican Party’s disparate factions as officials rallied behind their embattled presumptive nominee and his campaign expected to benefit from a flood of fundraising dollars.

There has been some polling conducted on the prospect of a guilty verdict, although such hypothetical scenarios are notoriously difficult to predict. A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found that only 4% of Trump supporters said they would withdraw their support if he was convicted of a felony, though another 16% said they would reconsider it.