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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

During each day of his trial, former President Donald Trump gave running commentary to reporters. Yesterday, the jury spoke, and then Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALVIN BRAGG: The defendant, Donald J. Trump, is guilty of 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree to conceal a scheme to corrupt the 2016 election.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

For the first time, a former president is convicted of a felony over the way that he paid off an adult film star. But if the trial is over, the argument is not. Bragg made his case that it was a normal prosecution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRAGG: While this defendant may be unlike any other in American history, we arrived at this trial and ultimately today at this verdict in the same manner as every other case that comes through the courtroom doors.

INSKEEP: The defendant will now test that assertion in the courts and in politics. His lawyers talk of an appeal, while Trump talks of appealing to voters. There's a lot to talk about here, and we begin with NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Andrea, good morning.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, those of us at home had to wait for people to relay the news out of the courtroom with no cameras, out of the courtroom to anchors to tell us. But what was it like for you?

BERNSTEIN: I was sitting in the front of the courtroom, right behind a row of Trump attorneys. In the minutes before the verdict was announced, Trump and his team were absolutely silent and still. You could hear only the buzzing of the fluorescent lights in the shabby courtroom. And then the jury filed back in, and the jury foreperson announced the verdict. How say you? he was asked 34 times, and 34 times he said guilty. Trump's lawyers unsuccessfully tried to get the judge to set aside the verdict. The judge announced the sentencing date, and then Trump walked out. His son Eric was sitting at the end of the first row when Trump turned and grabbed his hand, pulled it tightly and grimaced, looking about as stricken as I've ever seen him. That's right before he went out into the hall and blasted the judge and the DA.

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DONALD TRUMP: This was a rigged, disgraceful trial. The real verdict is going to be November 5 by the people.

BERNSTEIN: I've watched Trump in all of his court proceedings here in New York, and Trump was visibly unhappy yesterday.

INSKEEP: Andrea, he talks about the election there. It is amazing to think that this case started before the previous election in 2020 that he lost.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. The Manhattan DA's office started this investigation in 2018. It went to the Supreme Court twice to get Donald Trump's tax records. The office investigated through two different DA's. And when the case was indicted last year, there was a lot of talk about what a weak case this was and how insignificant, really. But over the course of the criminal trial, a picture of Donald Trump and his business practices emerged that was damning of a mogul and a political figure who acquired power over people by attracting men like Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, who was willing to cross lines for him.

But more than that, Trump silenced people using his money and power and avoided consequences until they could cross the next hurdle. This is the formula that's always worked for Trump - that was until yesterday. And though Trump has been found liable in three civil trials in New York in the past year - his company was convicted of 17 felonies in 2022 - this was different. The onetime president is now convicted of crimes.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Now, while the guilty verdict in former President Donald Trump's New York criminal case marks the end of the trial...

MARTÍNEZ: It also marks the beginning of what could be a long and winding set of legal challenges.

INSKEEP: So let's talk that through with Kim Wehle, who's a law professor at the University of Baltimore. She joins us now. Good morning.

KIM WEHLE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, so we just heard Andrea giving us the scene in the courtroom. Let's talk about the law. What convicted this man in the end?

WEHLE: I think the documents and the witnesses that the government laid out told a very strong story. And the defense didn't give an alternative narrative. That is, they explained there was a hush money scheme. They had Donald Trump on audiotape talking about Karen McDougal's hush money payment in August of 2016. "Access Hollywood" came out in October, and then Michael Cohen paid off Stormy Daniels right before the election, using his home equity line of credit. And then Hope Hicks, Donald Trump's - one of his closest aides, said that she didn't believe that he would have done that on his own. And the defense didn't really give an alternative scenario.

INSKEEP: And, of course, the defense accused Michael Cohen of lying. The defense lawyer even used the word perjury, I believe, briefly in the courtroom yesterday. But the verdict is what the verdict is. You describe how there's plenty of evidence that the payments were made, that Trump knew about the payments, that Trump knew what he was doing. That's what the jury found. But the next question is whether the case stands up on appeal, given, in part, the way it was prosecuted. It was seen as a novel prosecution, where this misdemeanor was elevated to a felony because it was supposed to be connected to this other crime of election interference. Is that case vulnerable on appeal?

WEHLE: Well, falsification of business records itself is not a novel theory, and it's clear under the statute it can be elevated to a felony if it's used to conceal another crime. What's maybe, you know, new is the idea that the other crime is duping voters in the election by covering up these payments and documenting them as legal fees. You know, on the facts, I don't think there's going to be a reversal. The jury decisions tend to hold a tremendous amount of weight. But there were some threshold motions. There were some questions in the disputes, in the jury instructions, the actual laying out the law...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

WEHLE: ...That could be reversed on appeal.

INSKEEP: Let's discuss one of those just very briefly, because Trump's supporters made much of this. The judge said you need to find that he falsified business records and also that he committed another crime, and it can be one of several different crimes. Is that a normal thing and is that a legal thing for the judge to have said?

WEHLE: Under the New York law, there were three theories that the judge justified, or found would be OK, so yes, but again, there's not a lot of precedent on this. But new cases - new precedents made every day. Just because this hasn't happened before doesn't mean it's illegal.

INSKEEP: OK, so sentencing comes in July. How does that work?

WEHLE: Well, there'll be a presentencing report with recommendations made by, you know, the people behind that. There's going to be post-trial motions under New York law. And then the judge will make a determination. Each of the 34 counts carries four years. Presumably they will run concurrently, but the judge could give anything from probation, which won't be great for Donald Trump - that holds some restrictions - all the way to potentially four years in prison.

INSKEEP: OK, we'll keep following the story. Kim, thanks so much.

WEHLE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's legal analyst Kim Wehle. Now, Trump's sentencing on July 11 comes just days before the Republican National Convention.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, that's where Trump has long been expected to become the GOP's official presidential nominee. Republican politicians have so far showed their support for Trump. In a statement, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson called the verdict a shameful day in American history and said the trial was a purely political exercise, not a legal one.

INSKEEP: One of many reactions. NPR's Scott Detrow joins us now. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Nice to reengage my Up First alarm clock. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you. Thank you. It's good to talk with you again. And we'll note that Scott hosts NPR's Trump's Trials podcast in addition to hosting All Things Considered, so it's good to talk with you. What does this verdict mean for the country when you step out of the courtroom?

DETROW: It's really a key moment, right? A man convicted on felony charges is running for president, and he's doing so making the argument that our entire judicial system is a fraud and out to get him. So voters now have this incredibly stark choice about whether or not to return him to the White House. And there's certainly other factors in the race. Joe Biden has a four-year record at this point. But I think that decision is going to say a lot about the direction of American democracy.

One thing I was thinking about last night is I saw a lot of people in this moment of a president being found guilty by a jury of 12 Americans saying - you know, citing that famous Gerald Ford speech about this is a government of laws, not men. I don't know if this is the full story, because now we have this remarkable situation of a verdict is in and Americans will decide, does this person take power again? Does this person, a convicted felon, go back to the Oval Office?

INSKEEP: This is something that effectively both campaigns said yesterday. Trump...

DETROW: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Said in his statement, I now appeal to the people on November 5. The Biden campaign issued a statement saying, OK, here's this verdict, but only the American people can, in their view, keep Trump out of office. They're both basically saying the same thing. It is a democracy. The people will decide.

DETROW: That's right. And how the people decide will affect the other criminal cases that Trump is facing. Remember, this is the one that's going to trial, but he is facing two different federal cases, one involving his attempts to overturn the election. If he becomes president, he can pardon himself on those charges, or he can derail the investigations and the criminal cases. He would have that power. This is a New York state conviction, so he would not have the power to pardon himself. But a lot is at stake here about what direction the country is going to go when it comes to how the rule of law works and when it comes to the rule of law combined with politics.

INSKEEP: Could this conviction help the former president in the election right now?

DETROW: I mean, Donald Trump clearly thinks so. I'm not sure what other choice he has politically, but he said himself as much in an interview with KDKA in Pittsburgh earlier this month.

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TRUMP: Even if convicted, I think that it has absolutely no impact. It may drive the numbers up, but we don't want that. We want to have a fair verdict.

DETROW: You mentioned the speaker of the House, other key Republicans rallying around Trump. His supporters seem energized. There were a lot of signs that he got a lot of donations last night. But look, the primaries are over. I think it's important to think about the fact that not only are more moderate voters going to decide this election, it's probably going to come down to the voters who don't like Joe Biden and don't like Donald Trump and feel not sure which direction to go. A really well-timed recent poll showed that only 17% of voters said a guilty verdict could make them change their mind on whether or not to vote for Trump, but 17% is a lot, given how close the last few elections have been.

INSKEEP: Ah, so this could be decisive even if the overwhelming majority of voters already had made up their minds and aren't going to change them.

DETROW: The way I think about that is the attendance of a Big Ten football stadium in these key states has decided the last two presidential elections, and that's probably going to be the case in this one.

INSKEEP: Although some of those stadiums are pretty big.

DETROW: They are.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, I get it, I get it. Scott, thanks so much.

DETROW: Relative to the whole country, they're small. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) That's NPR's Scott Detrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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