'The air in the courtroom turned to stone'

New York courtroom sketch of Donald Trump with son Eric Trump
[Reuters]

Several minutes of almost unbearable silence passed at Donald Trump's hush-money criminal case, before the court officer’s voice came loud and clear through the courtroom.

She asked the jury to read the verdict. And in a steady, even tone, the foreman began.

And when the first guilty verdict rang out, the air in the courtroom turned to stone.

Trump sat at the defence table, motionless, as the wave of guilty verdicts reverberated through the chamber where he had spent seven weeks on trial.

At each “guilty,” he did not flinch or react physically.

When the foreman was done, Trump had become the first ever former US president convicted of a felony.

Twenty minutes before, it seemed like Trump would return to his Manhattan skyscraper for the night, fate unknown.

The judge walked into the courtroom shortly after16:00 local time, and said he planned to dismiss the jury for the day in a half hour. Then he left to talk to them.

Passing the time, Mr Trump and his lead attorney, Todd Blanche, huddled together at the defence table laughing. They looked like old friends sharing a good joke – and Mr Trump’s shoulders even shook in a rare display of mirth.

But then, as time passed, the judge still had not returned.

A few minutes later, Justice Merchan arrived in a swoop of black robes, his face inscrutable.

The jury, he said, had a note. And a verdict. They had taken extra time to fill out required paperwork, but they were ready.

The atmosphere shifted. The only noise was the sound of reporters frantically typing.

"All rise," a court officer said suddenly. "Jury entering".

One by one, the 12 walked past Trump who rose along with the rest of the courtroom for their entrance.

Justice Merchan, in the same even tone he used throughout the trial, asked the jury to confirm they had a verdict.

They had, the foreperson said.

The first guilty verdict landed - the next 33 added a crushing weight.

Silent and still at the defence table, Trump kept his lips pursed as his lawyers, Todd Blanche and Emil Bove on either side of him, glanced sternly toward the judge.

As each juror verbally confirmed the decision to convict him, Trump turned his head in their direction and followed their faces one by one as they answered.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office charged Trump with 34 counts of falsification of business records. He was guilty on all counts.

Prosecutors said that with Trump’s approval, his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to stay silent just before his 2016 presidential run about an alleged sexual encounter. Trump then was accused of approving a fraudulent scheme to disguise the reimbursement to Cohen as legal expenses.

He pleaded not guilty and has denied having sex with Ms. Daniels.

On Thursday, Trump's pursed expression remained unchanged after the verdict was read and his attorneys pleaded with the judge for acquittal, claiming Mr Trump’s former fixer had committed perjury with his damning testimony on the stand.

Denied, Justice Merchan said.

The judge then praised the jury, acknowledging the huge burden the 12 New Yorkers had shouldered.

“You were engaged in a very stressful and difficult task,” he told them. “I really admire your dedication and hard work…you gave this matter the attention it deserves.''

When court finally adjourned, Trump rose from his seat with a deep frown. He said nothing.

As he walked past son Eric Trump, who sat behind him during the historic verdict, he grasped his son's chest for a moment - though it was not clear who was comforting whom.

A few moments later, his son followed him out the door.