Opinion: Trump verdict keeps this bedrock American ideal alive

Editor’s Note: Norman Eisen is a CNN legal analyst and editor of “Trying Trump: A Guide to His First Election Interference Criminal Trial.” He served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee for the first impeachment and trial of then-President Donald Trump. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

A gasp surged through Courtroom 1530 of the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse when, at 4:37 p.m., Judge Juan Merchan took the bench in the prosecution of former President Donald Trump and announced, “We have a verdict.”

Trump stood trial for document falsification charges in an illegal repayment scheme to conceal the $130,000 hush money payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. The payment was made to keep her silent in the midst of the 2016 presidential election campaign, regarding allegations that she and Trump had a sexual encounter (which Trump denies) years before. The felony counts cover each of the 11 invoices, 12 ledger entries and 11 checks (nine signed by Trump himself) involved in the conspiracy.

For those of us present in the courtroom, hundreds of millions of Americans and, indeed, people around the world, the conviction of Trump on these 34 counts of falsifying business records is a milestone. For the first time in American history, an occupant of the highest office in the land has been found by a jury of his or her peers to have committed crimes.

The announcement that there was a verdict came just minutes after Merchan had planned to send the jury home for the day, and the audible reaction caused the judge to warn the audience of about 60 journalists to remain silent when the verdict was read. But that enforced hush was, if possible, even more impactful when, at 5:05 p.m., the foreman of the jury read that verdict for count one — “guilty” — and repeated it for all 34 counts.

Norm Eisen - Courtesy Norm Eisen
Norm Eisen - Courtesy Norm Eisen

And as successfully argued by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s team, it was a crime connected to the former president’s attainment of that office: falsifying documents to cover up a conspiracy to influence the 2016 election by paying hush money. It feels strange not to write the word “allegedly” in that sentence after so many years of doing so, dating back to when I investigated this misconduct as part of the first Trump impeachment in 2019.

We’ve never had a trial of a president before. And yet, the trial was about one of the oldest American ideals: that no one is above the law. We overthrew a British king and put a constitution in his place. And with all of our ups and down as a nation, we have ever kept that idea alive. Having a president subject to the same laws, rules and procedures as any other American is a powerful reaffirmation of that idea.

I was struck by the jury’s attitude on Thursday morning during their requested read-back of pages six to 35 of the judge’s instructions. Those instructions dealt with both general principles guiding deliberation, such as the meaning of reasonable doubt, as well as the technical elements of the conspiracy and cover-up felonies here.

It was dry, to say the least, but the attention the jurors paid to the judge as he read could not have been more rapt. Indeed, it was downright reverent. In every case where a judge does a good job, jurors come to like and listen to the judge. That certainly happened here.

Merchan responded to the verdict just as he has done throughout this case: with extreme professionalism. He thanked the jury for their hard work in the case, saying that they “gave this matter the attention that it deserved, and I thank you for that.”

Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche stood up to move for a completely spurious acquittal notwithstanding the verdict, saying, “There is no way this jury could have reached a verdict without relying on Michael Cohen — he lied, in this case. He cannot be used to convict President Trump.” But Merchan quickly and effectively shut him down: “I am sure you misspoke. I do not know that anyone committed perjury in this case … your motion is denied.”

Now we move on to questions of this verdict’s impact on the election, the content of sentencing (which Merchan has scheduled for July 11 at 10 a.m.) with each count carrying a potential term of up to four years of imprisonment, and whither the other three criminal cases against Trump.

But that is for another day. For today, the enormity of Trump being finally held accountable by a jury of his peers after so many allegations resonates across the nation and around the world.

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