Trump judgment looms as historic trial reaches finale


Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the Libertarian National Convention in Washington, DC, on May 25, 2024. [AFP]

Prosecutors in the trial of Donald Trump will make a final pitch to the jury Tuesday, in their historic pursuit of the first-ever criminal conviction of a former US president.

Less than six months before American voters choose whether to return Trump to the White House, the stakes riding on the verdict are hard to overstate for the 77-year-old personally, but also for the country as a whole.

Trump is accused of falsifying business records to buy the silence of adult film star Stormy Daniels over a 2006 sexual encounter between them that could have damaged his 2016 presidential bid.

If convicted, he faces up to four years in prison on each of 34 counts, but legal experts say that as a first-time offender, he is unlikely to get jail time.

Crucially, a conviction would not bar Trump from appearing on the ballot in November as the Republican presidential challenger to Democrat Joe Biden.

It has taken nearly five weeks, the testimony of more than 20 witnesses and a few courtroom fireworks to reach closing arguments -- the last chance for the prosecution and defense to impress their case on the anonymous, 12-member jury.

As expected, Trump chose not to testify in his defense -- a move that would have exposed him to unnecessary legal jeopardy and forensic cross-examination.

Instead, he was forced to sit and listen while Daniels recounted their alleged encounter in sometimes graphic detail.

Speaking to reporters before and after each day in court, Trump launched regular tirades against Judge Juan Merchan calling him "corrupt" and a "tyrant" and condemned the whole trial as "election interference" by Democrats intent on keeping him off the campaign trail.

The politics of the case were in full view in the final days when a coterie of leading Republicans -- including several vice-presidential hopefuls -- came to the court and stood behind Trump in a gesture of support as he spoke to the press.

Unanimity required

The judge has said he expects closing arguments to take up all of Tuesday.

He will then give his final instructions to the jury, who will likely begin their deliberations on Wednesday.

To return a guilty or not guilty verdict requires unanimity. Just one holdout means a hung jury and a mistrial.

Aside from Daniels, the key prosecution witness was Michael Cohen, Trump's former "fixer" turned bitter foe who said he arranged the $130,000 hush money payment so her story "would not affect Mr Trump's chances of becoming president of the United States."

Trump's defense team devoted most of their questioning trying to discredit Cohen, recalling that he had admitted lying to Congress and spent time in prison for tax fraud.

In addition to the New York case, Trump has been indicted in Washington and Georgia on charges of conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

He also faces charges in Florida of allegedly mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House.

None of those trials are expected to take place before the November election.