Trump, Defeated

For 30 intense, liminal minutes yesterday, the world felt on edge between two possible futures. The jurors in the New York trial of Donald Trump hadn’t taken all that long to deliberate, at it for only two days, and now they were preparing to deliver their verdict.

Any seasoned trial attorney or courtroom reporter will tell you that a quick verdict is usually bad news for the defendant—and yet, Trump had escaped seemingly intractable situations so many times, and with such ease.

As the foreperson of the jury pronounced him guilty on each count, Trump transformed. He was no longer a man to whom gravity no longer applied, but a defendant in a courtroom like any other, one who now faces the indignities of sentencing—potentially including prison time. He has said that he plans to appeal, and an appeals court could eventually toss out the conviction—but that would be a long way away, almost certainly after voters have finished casting their ballots in November. And even if an appeal succeeds, there is no undoing the moment when the country first saw a former president convicted of crimes in a court of law.

In the fall of 2016, the writer Jesse Farrar made a joke on Twitter that would soon prove prophetic. “Well, I'd like to see ol Donny Trump wriggle his way out of THIS jam!” he wrote, assuming the voice of an overconfident pundit. The tweet then proceeds to describe Trump easily dodging catastrophe. “Ah! Well,” the imaginary pundit continues. “Nevertheless.”

In the years since, Trump has survived a series of events that for any other politician could well have been career-ending: a special-counsel investigation, two impeachments, an attempted coup, and multiple indictments. Somehow, he was always able to escape consequence. But now, with a verdict against him in New York convicting him of 34 felony counts, Donald Trump is finally facing real consequences.

The conviction is a major win for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who faced criticism from commentators across the political spectrum when he first announced the charges against Trump in March 2023. The case didn’t seem serious enough, the arguments went. Instead of addressing the most pressing, important misconduct by Trump—his effort to illegitimately hold on to power following the 2020 election—it focused on a grubby scheme by Trump and those around him to quash negative stories during his 2016 campaign. But over the past six weeks, as prosecutors set out their case in a dingy Manhattan courtroom, the structure of their legal arguments and the strength of the evidence against Trump came into focus. While Trump sat scowling alongside his defense lawyers, Bragg’s team laid out the trail of documents and testimony implicating him in what prosecutors argued was a conspiracy to improperly influence the 2016 election.

The story involves a series of lies and cover-ups, each nested within the other like matryoshka dolls. Trump and his associates, prosecutors argued, coordinated hush-money payments to women who threatened to go public about their past sexual interactions with the candidate. Then Trump agreed to orchestrate a series of payments to his fixer Michael Cohen to conceal the initial payments. The structure of the charges themselves was matryoshka-like: 34 counts of falsification of business records, elevated to felonies on the basis that Trump intended to violate New York election law, which itself became criminal only because he allegedly relied on an array of different “unlawful means.” Throughout the trial, Trump complained on Truth Social that the charges were baseless and legally confused, as if he could once again talk himself out of trouble. In the courtroom, though, he remained silent. And the jury had the last word.

Elsewhere in the justice system, Trump’s legal strategy of running down the clock until the election seems to be serving him well. Arguably the most serious case against him, the federal charges regarding January 6, remains stalled while the Supreme Court dithers on the question of presidential immunity. A guilty verdict in that case might carry more historical weight, but there’s nevertheless something appropriate about how the New York trial, in all its grimy mundanity, went first. The facts of the matter are so essentially Trumpian, all stemming from his foundational belief that the rules—of U.S. and New York election law, of state requirements concerning recordkeeping, of basic decency toward other people—do not apply to him. They also speak to his willingness to push past the line of acceptable behavior—sometimes by a great deal—in order to win and hold on to power. And sometimes, it turns out, that conduct will constitute criminal behavior in the eyes of a jury.

The New York case, like all the Trump prosecutions, has always been shadowed by the presidential race. Following the jury’s announcement of its verdict, Justice Juan Merchan scheduled Trump’s sentencing for July 11—just days before he is set to formally accept the GOP’s nomination for president at the Republican National Convention. Trump’s political appeal has always been tied to perceptions of his invincibility. He was a force of nature, the godlike manifestation of the people’s will unbound by law. Now, though, the Trump balloon has been punctured. The Übermensch is not so über. When Trump stepped out of the courtroom after the verdict to deliver remarks to the press, he walked with hunched shoulders, declaring his innocence in a flat, exhausted tone, as if he was struggling to summon his typical reserves of fury. He had a new look about him, unseen even after the 2020 election, when he lost but claimed victory; he looked defeated.