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The jury finishes a 1st day of deliberations in Trump’s hush money case

Former President Donald Trump walks out of the courtroom Wednesday to make remarks to the media during his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City.
Doug Mills
/
Pool/Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump walks out of the courtroom Wednesday to make remarks to the media during his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City.

Updated May 29, 2024 at 16:33 PM ET

NEW YORK — Twelve New York jurors began deliberations Wednesday in former President Donald Trump’s criminal trial. They will decide if Trump will be convicted or acquitted of 34 felony counts of falsified business records. This is the first criminal trial against a former or sitting U.S. president.

All 12 jurors — plus six alternates who were asked to stay in case they are needed — listened to just over four weeks of testimony as the prosecution argued that Trump was involved in a scheme meant to conceal a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels to further another crime.

The payments weren't in dispute. What prosecutors needed to prove was that Trump made them in order to cover up other crimes, such as violating campaign finance law and mischaracterizing the payments for tax purposes.

The jury heard from 22 witnesses with often-dramatic testimony. Jurors are weighing evidence, including documents like phone records, invoices and checks, as they try to reach a verdict. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

The verdict must be unanimous. If all 12 jurors can’t agree, the jury is considered “hung,” and the judge will declare a mistrial. The district attorney prosecuting the case will have to decide whether to try the case again.

On Wednesday, New York Judge Juan Merchan reminded the jury of their promise to be impartial and leave their biases at the door. For an hour, he delivered the jury instructions, reminding jurors that some evidence — such as former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s guilty plea to violating federal campaign finance laws, or certain headlines that ran in newspapers — is used only to establish the credibility of other witnesses, and give context to the timing of events, and not to determine Trump’s guilt.

Merchan also explained how the jury should define the law at hand, which includes the intent to defraud and falsify business records. In this case, he said prosecutors argued Trump aimed to conceal breaking New York election law by falsifying business records.

In order to determine this, the jury may look at three of the prosecution's theories: Federal Election Campaign Act violation, falsification of other business records or violation of tax laws.

Jurors began deliberations just before midday Wednesday. They headed into a room, giving up their cellphones. They have one laptop with all the evidence. They wrapped for the day late Wednesday afternoon.

In closing arguments Tuesday, the defense and the prosecution laid out their final arguments. Trump lawyer Todd Blanche focused intently on the credibility of former Trump lawyer Cohen and argued that influencing an election is not illegal. Prosecutors sought to build up Cohen's testimony by reminding jurors of all the other witnesses they heard from, and walking them through the checks, invoices and ledgers that constitute the 34 counts of falsified business records.

Throughout the trial, Trump, the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee, has lamented his inability to campaign as much as he would like, since, per New York criminal law, he has to attend the trial every day that court is in session. He has also accused the judge of being biased.

He reiterated those comments — without evidence — Wednesday in the hallways as the jurors began their deliberations.

“Mother Theresa could not beat these charges. The charges are rigged," he said. "The whole thing is rigged."

What the jury heard

In August 2015, two months after Trump announced his 2016 presidential bid, David Pecker, then the publisher of the National Enquirer tabloid, met with Trump and Cohen at Trump Tower, according to Pecker’s testimony.

At that meeting, Pecker testified, it was agreed that he would be the “eyes and ears” of the Trump campaign. His job was to look out for negative stories from women he could “take off the marketplace,” by buying up the rights but never publishing them.

The plan, as Pecker outlined it, was that he would suppress these stories, and at the same time publish negative stories about Trump’s opponents. Some of these stories, Pecker said, were sent to Trump and Cohen for approval prior to publication.

Over the next year, Pecker said he carried out this role. His testimony was corroborated by Keith Davidson, an attorney who represented both Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. In about June 2016, McDougal considered going public with her story of a year-long affair with Trump. But Pecker bought the rights to that story, with the expectation that he would be reimbursed by Trump. That never happened.

In early October 2016, according to the testimony of former Trump communications aide Hope Hicks, the campaign was rocked by the release of the Access Hollywood tape, where Trump could be heard boasting “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the p****.”

The next day, according to Pecker, Cohen and Davidson, Daniels threatened to go public with accusations she'd had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006 in a Lake Tahoe hotel suite during a celebrity golf tournament.

In her testimony, Daniels testified that there was a “power imbalance” that made her feel she had to have sex with Trump, when, after leaving the suite’s restroom, she found Trump on the hotel bed in his underwear.

She testified that Trump had dangled a possible role on his TV show Celebrity Apprentice. This detail — that the sex wasn’t entirely wanted — caused the defense to request a mistrial, which was denied. It also provided a motive for Trump to suppress the story. Prosecutors said, “Trump knew what happened in that hotel room” and didn’t want it to come out. The adult film actor’s testimony also included intimate details of her alleged sexual encounter, some of which Judge Merchan agreed with the defense were not necessary.

As October drew to a close, Cohen testified, he frantically opened bank accounts and tried to come up with a way to pay the $130,000 to keep Daniels quiet. But Trump, Cohen said, wanted to delay the payment until after the election, with the idea that after that it wouldn’t matter if Daniels was paid.

This point, that Trump was making the payment to influence the election by keeping women voters on board, was corroborated by a number of other witnesses. Hicks, who said Trump, by then in the White House, told her that it was better the story came out in 2018, rather than 2016.

Cohen ultimately wired the money himself to Daniels, with the understanding, he said, that he would be repaid. Cohen testified to a number of conversations with Trump, backed up by phone records, including on the day he wired the payments. But the defense rattled Cohen on cross-examination when it presented evidence that one of the calls which Cohen had said was made through Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller, was instead with Schiller about threats from a 14-year-old prankster.

Still, the heart of the case rests on the testimony of what happened after the election, when the records were allegedly falsified, in particular the handwritten notes and documents from the Trump Organization’s former comptroller, Jeff McConney.

McConney authenticated a key record: the bank statement showing Cohen’s wire transfer. That record included handwritten notes from Cohen and Trump’s former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, describing the $130,000 payment that would be “grossed up” to cover Cohen’s taxes. That sum, combined with another reimbursement and a bonus, for a total of $420,000, was paid out over 12 months at a rate of $35,000 per month.

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The payments would be described as pursuant to a “legal retainer.” (Weisselberg, who is serving jail time for perjury in Trump’s civil fraud trial, did not testify.)

On the stand, Cohen described a repayment scheme that formed the basis of the 34 counts of falsified business records: 11 falsified invoices, 12 falsified ledger entries and 11 checks falsely recording the repayment as legal “retainers.” Nine of the checks were signed by Trump, himself.

Cohen said he and Weisselberg met and discussed the agreement with Trump shortly before he left for Washington, on or about Jan. 17, 2020. Cohen said Trump approved the deal, saying at the end of the meeting that “it was going to be one heck of a ride,” in Washington. Cohen said he and Trump discussed the arrangement again, in early February, in the Oval Office. Photos and White House records corroborate that the two met in the Oval Office at the time.

The defense presented just two witnesses, including Robert Costello, an attorney who wanted to represent Cohen after Cohen’s home and office were searched by the FBI in 2018. Costello had been put on the stand to refute Cohen’s claim that Costello was pressuring Cohen to stay on Trump’s “team.” But Costello’s emails showed that Trump was deciding which of Cohen’s lawyers he wanted to pay, and that Costello was concerned about not giving “the appearance that we are following instructions from [Rudy] Giuliani or the president,” referring to the former New York City mayor who was Trump’s lawyer at the time.

What comes next

Jurors could deliberate for hours, days or weeks as they try to reach a unanimous decision.

If Trump is convicted, Merchan would later issue the sentence, which may or may not include prison time; some legal experts believe imprisonment for a former president is unlikely. A conviction does not prevent Trump from being the GOP nominee, nor continuing his bid for president. It is likely his legal team would appeal the decision, as they have in past civil trials in New York.

If he is acquitted of the charges, Trump cannot be retried for the same charges.

The jurors range from all over Manhattan, including Harlem, Hell's Kitchen, Murray Hill and the Upper West Side. They are litigators, teachers, physical therapists and investment bankers. Their hobbies range from wood and metal working, hiking, fly fishing and exploring New York City. There are seven men and five women.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
Andrea Bernstein
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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