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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Donald Trump, felon

Former President Donald Trump waves as he arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York, on Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

By The Editorial Board

In a humble courtroom in lower Manhattan on Thursday, a former president and current Republican standard-bearer was convicted of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. The jury’s decision and the facts presented at the trial offer yet another reminder — perhaps the starkest to date — of the many reasons Donald Trump is unfit for office.

The guilty verdict in the former president’s hush-money case was reached by a unanimous jury of 12 randomly selected New Yorkers, who found that Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, was guilty of falsifying business records to prevent voters from learning about a sexual encounter that he believed would have been politically damaging.

Americans may wonder about the significance of this moment. The Constitution does not prohibit those with a criminal conviction from being elected or serving as commander in chief, even if they are behind bars. The nation’s founders left that decision in the hands of voters. Many experts have also expressed skepticism about the significance of this case and its legal underpinnings, which employed an unusual legal theory to seek a felony charge for what is more commonly a misdemeanor, and Trump will undoubtedly seek an appeal.

Yet the greatest good to come out of this sordid case is the proof that the rule of law binds everyone, even former presidents. Under extraordinary circumstances, the trial was conducted much like any other criminal trial in the city. That 12 Americans could sit in judgment of the former and potentially future president is a remarkable display of the democratic principles that Americans prize at work.

Justice Juan M. Merchan, the jury and the New York legal system delivered speedy justice, providing Americans with vital information about a presidential candidate before voting begins. Multiple polls have shown that a conviction will affect the decision of many voters.

The verdict itself establishes that Trump committed crimes in hiding pertinent information about himself from the American people for the purpose of influencing the 2016 presidential election. It revealed even more evidence of what Trump is willing to do, including breaking the law and pushing others to break the law, for political gain. That chronic impulse — to override democratic norms and the law to his own ends — is at the heart of two other criminal cases against Trump, for the much more serious charges of spreading lies and participating in a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election. (He is also charged with mishandling highly classified national security documents after leaving office; twice, he showed classified documents to people who were not authorized to see them, according to the indictment.) Trump’s lawyers have managed to delay those three trials.

The former president has never shown much moral rectitude, but the facts presented at the New York trial also revealed more information that the public should know about the unethical way that Trump conducts his life and his business. Prosecutors laid out the details of the payoff in careful detail: Shortly after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape and less than two weeks before the 2016 election, Michael Cohen, who was then Trump’s lawyer and fixer, paid Stormy Daniels, a porn actor, $130,000 to keep quiet about the 2006 sexual encounter she said she had with Trump.

A payoff like this is not illegal by itself. What makes it illegal is doctoring business records to mask its true purpose, which prosecutors said was to hide the story from the American people to help Trump get elected. Prosecutors had to show that this payoff was made at Trump’s behest and that Trump knew the reimbursement to Cohen for the payoff was falsely categorized as a legal expense to disguise it. The evidence they presented, both direct and circumstantial, showed Trump’s personal involvement in the scheme, and its motivation.

Merchan was scrupulous in ensuring that Trump received a fair trial. He refused, for example, to allow the jury to hear sensational material, such as audio from the “Access Hollywood” tape or subsequent allegations of sexual assault against Trump, that could have been prejudicial to his rights as a defendant. And yet throughout the trial, the judge was forced to deal with Trump’s attempts to undermine the legal system. To protect its integrity, Merchan put a limit on what Trump could say to prevent him from attacking and threatening jurors, witnesses, court personnel and even the judge’s family. Trump repeatedly flouted that order and was fined $10,000 for contempt of court. Only the threat of a jail sentence finally seemed to keep Trump in line.

In the end, the jury heard the evidence, deliberated for more than nine hours and came to a decision, which is how the system is designed to work. In the same way, elections allow voters to consider the choices before them with full information, then freely cast their ballots. Trump tried to sabotage elections and the criminal justice system — both of which are fundamental to American democracy — when he thought they might not produce the outcome he wanted. So far, they have proved resilient enough to withstand his attacks. The jurors have delivered their verdict, as the voters will in November. If the Republic is to survive, all of us — including Trump — should abide by both, regardless of the outcome.

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