Closing arguments, verdict: Trump’s hush money trial entering final stretch

Prosecutors and defence lawyers to deliver closing arguments this week in historic trial against ex-US President Donald Trump.

Former US President Donald Trump sits in court
Former US President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business documents related to hush money payments [File: David Handschuh/Pool via Reuters]

After more than four weeks and nearly two dozen witnesses, former United States President Donald Trump’s hush money trial is now entering the final stretch.

Prosecutors and Trump’s defence team will deliver their closing arguments beginning on Tuesday morning in the New York courtroom that has played host to a series of heated exchanges and memorable moments since testimony began in late April.

The jury will then be asked to deliberate and reach a verdict, just months before the country heads to the polls for what is expected to be a closely fought November election between Trump, a Republican, and his Democratic rival President Joe Biden.

Trump, who faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business documents in relation to hush money payments made to an adult film star before the 2016 presidential election, has pleaded not guilty.

Here’s all you need to know about the historic case – the first criminal trial against a former US president – and what comes next.

What is happening at Trump’s hush money trial this week?

Prosecutors and defence lawyers will have their final opportunity to address the jury in closing arguments, which are expected to last for much of Tuesday.

The arguments function as hourlong recaps of the key points each side wants to make before the jurors begin their deliberations.

The defence team will go first, followed by the prosecution.

What will each side argue?

Prosecutors have sought to make the case throughout the trial that Trump took part in a hush money scheme aimed at stifling bad press that could have hurt his chances in the 2016 presidential election, which he won.

They have shown the jury financial statements and questioned several witnesses, including Stormy Daniels, the adult film star whose alleged affair with Trump is at the centre of the case. Trump has denied any sexual encounter took place.

The prosecution’s star witness, ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, also testified that the former president was directly involved in the scheme and authorised payments.

The defence, for its part, has sought to discredit the witnesses, including by painting Cohen as a serial liar. Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges related to the hush money payments as well as for lying to the US Congress.

But this week, Trump’s team does not have to prove anything or convince jurors of his innocence.

To prevent a conviction, they need to persuade at least one of the 12 jurors that prosecutors have failed to prove Trump’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt – the standard for criminal cases.

The defence may also assert one last time that Trump was most concerned about shielding his family from salacious stories, not winning the election, when it comes to the hush money that was paid.

Michael Cohen, wearing a suit and pink tie, walks outside his apartment building in New York.
Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was the prosecution’s star witness [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

What is the jury being asked to decide?

While courtroom drama has dominated media coverage of the trial, the case boils down to whether Trump knowingly covered up a $130,000 payment to Daniels for her silence in an effort to prevent her claims from derailing his 2016 White House bid.

The jury must decide not only if Trump caused the records of payments to be falsified but also if he did so to cover up another crime – an undeclared campaign donation in this case. Both findings would make the alleged offences felonies under New York state law.

In an interview with Al Jazeera at the outset of the trial, Gregory Germain, a law professor at Syracuse University in upstate New York, summed up “the two essential elements” of the indictment: “Where’s the fraud and where’s the [secondary] crime?”

After each side delivers its closing arguments, the judge overseeing the case, Juan Merchan, will give the jury lengthy instructions on how to interpret the law and evidence during their deliberations. This could happen as early as Wednesday.

How do jury deliberations work?

The deliberations will proceed in secret in a room reserved specifically for jurors and in a process that is intentionally opaque.

During their deliberations, the jurors will have access to all of the evidence and will be able to ask questions of the judge, who will confer with prosecutors and defence lawyers before deciding how to answer.

There is no time limit on how long the jury takes to deliberate. The jurors must evaluate 34 counts of falsifying business records, so that could take some time, and a verdict might not come by the end of the week.

To reach a verdict, either guilty or not guilty, all 12 jurors must agree with the decision for the judge to accept it. If the jury is unable to unanimously decide a verdict, it deadlocks, and Merchan would declare a mistrial.

Once jurors inform the court they have reached a verdict, Merchan will summon the parties to the courtroom to hear it read by the jury foreperson. Merchan must still affirm the verdict and enter a final judgement. Either side may ask him to effectively overrule the jury.

What happens if Trump is convicted?

If Trump is convicted, it would likely be several weeks or months until he is sentenced.

As a first-time offender of a nonviolent crime, the ex-president and the Republican Party’s 2024 presumptive presidential nominee would likely be released on bond in the meantime.

The maximum sentence for Trump’s crime of falsifying business records is up to four years in prison. But while prison time is a possibility, experts said a fine, probation or community service are all far more likely options.

Will a conviction affect Trump’s election chances?

That remains unclear.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll from early May found that an overwhelming percentage of Trump supporters – 80 percent – said they would back the former president in November even if he is found guilty of a felony.

But 16 percent said they would reconsider their support if he is found guilty while 4 percent said they would withdraw it, the poll showed.

Another poll, published last week by Quinnipiac University, showed that 6 percent of Trump voters said they would be less likely to vote for Trump if he is convicted, 24 percent said they would be more likely to vote for him and 68 percent said it would not affect their choice.

While the percentage of voters who said they would ditch Trump if he is convicted is low, it could nevertheless prove important in a neck-and-neck contest between Trump and Biden.

“Will a conviction sink Trump? The vast majority of his supporters say it would be no big deal. But in an extremely tight race, that 6 percent could tip the balance,” Quinnipiac University polling analyst Tim Malloy said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies