A jury has pronounced its verdict: The United States experienced a “subversion of democracy” in 2016. Those were the words used by the District Attorney’s office in its closing statement to describe the enormity of the case to the jurors. 

By delivering their historic convictions, a Manhattan jury has done more than find former President Donald Trump guilty of 34 felonies. The 12 men and women have placed a question mark on the legitimacy of Trump’s first and potentially only term in the White House. 

“I suggest to you that the value of this corrupt bargain forged at this Trump Tower meeting cannot be overstated,” Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass told jurors during closing arguments. “It turned out to be one of the most valuable contributions anyone ever made to the Trump campaign.”

In a once-secret meeting now shrouded in infamy by the first criminal trial of a former president, tabloid mogul David Pecker met with Trump and his then-attorney Michael Cohen in Trump Tower in August 2015, where they hatched a three-point plan to put the reality TV star into the White House. Pecker would become the “eyes and ears” of the Trump campaign, using the National Enquirer to promote Trump, denigrate his opponents, and silence any “women selling stories.” 

As Steinglass intoned, “When you put all three of these components together, this scheme cooked up by these men at this time could very well be what got President Trump elected.”

That meeting, prosecutors said, led to the hush money payments to former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult film actress Stormy Daniels, to cover up a series of scandals that sent the Trump campaign scrambling following the release of the Access Hollywood tape during its last month. If made public, prosecutors noted that they could have easily derailed Trump’s narrow election win.

“We will never know, and it doesn’t matter, if this conspiracy was the difference-maker in a close election,” said prosecutor Matthew Colangelo, when trial began.

More than a month and 22 witnesses later, it’s hard to call those remarks hyperbolic, as the public has come to learn about the secret history of the 2016 presidential election. 

During opening statements, prosecutors revealed that Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal’s then-attorney Keith Davidson suspected at the time that he propelled Trump into the White House. On Election Night, as Trump’s victory became imminent, Davidson sent a text message to the Enquirer’s then-editor in chief Dylan Howard asking: “What have we done?”

In his reply, Howard did not dispute the premise of the question, saying only, “Oh my god.”

As those three words of disbelief suggest, Howard was no Trump supporter, but he had a job and reported to Pecker. Howard sent a bleak text message to a close relative that perhaps soon-to-be-president Trump would pardon him for “electoral fraud.” The private messages of Pecker, Howard, Cohen, and Davidson — all central players in the conspiracy at the heart of the case — shared a consistent theme: They believed their efforts put Trump in the White House, and many of them believed their own actions before the election were illegal.

Subsequent federal and state prosecutions bore out those beliefs. In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in connection with his hush-money payments to Daniels. The Enquirer’s corporate parent American Media Inc. reached a non-prosecution agreement with prosecutors owning up to their role in silencing McDougal’s story. During Trump’s trial, Pecker testified that he understood that agreement to be a concession to federal offenses. Those cases turned on violations of federal campaign finance law.

Through the historic criminal trial of a former president, the United States and others around the world have become deeply immersed in the inner workings of a New York statute that DA Bragg previously described as the “bread and butter” of his office’s clampdown on white-collar crime. The falsifying business records statute is a frequent tool of the prosecutor’s arsenal in the financial capital of the world, but its complicated inner workings did not previously have a high profile case to cast it into public attention.

The statute has burst out onto the national stage with all of its complexities, and its reach goes far beyond the 11 invoices, 11 checks, and 12 ledger entries jurors found that Trump and his co-conspirators filled with deceptions. Through the jury instructions, those falsified records became inseparable from what prosecutors described as a “subversion of democracy.” A guilty verdict on the felony charges required jurors to find Trump intended to engage in a conspiracy to violate New York election law, through any number of unsavory “unlawful means.“

“Democracy gives the people the right to elect their leaders, but that rests on the fundamental premise that the voters have access to accurate information about the candidates,” Steinglass told jurors during closing arguments.

Tackling public cynicism, Steinglass rhetorically asked: “Who cares if Mr. Trump slept with a porn star ten years before the 2016 election?”

“Plenty of people feel that way, as I said,” Steinglass noted. “But, it’s harder to say that the American people don’t have the right to decide for themselves whether they care or not, that a handful of people sitting in a room can decide what information gets into those voters’ hands.”

Transformed into what the prosecutor called a “covert arm” of the Trump campaign, the Enquirer blared headlines filled with the then-candidate’s propaganda and attacks on his rivals on supermarket checkout stands across the United States. The cumulative effect went far beyond the 350,000 circulation of National Enquirer, a single tabloid. Its corporate parent became analogous to an intelligence agency for the Trump campaign, without any disclosure to the voting public. 

Half a decade ago, former President Jimmy Carter opined that he saw Trump as an illegitimate president in light of the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election. Even though Carter spent the greater part of his post-presidency monitoring elections for fairness in dozens of countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia, his opinion did not get much traction in the popular discourse. The taboo against questioning the legitimacy of the highest office in the United States was, rightly, strong, well before Trump and his supporters trampled upon that tradition in and after 2020, and many Republicans and others viewed a former Democratic president’s severe decree as just more partisan politics.  

Now, 12 randomly selected New Yorkers — consisting of seven men and five women, from all walks of life — listened to 22 witnesses over the course of more than a month. After considering the evidence and applying the law, they found Trump guilty of all of the crimes charged in a little more than a day. In doing so, they rejected his lawyers’ claims of reasonable doubt — and injected their own doubt into the legitimacy of his single term in the White House.

As they did with Carter, Trump and his supporters have been spinning the jury’s verdict as politics. In a contentious election year, in light of all of the evidence that emerged at his trial, time will tell how the greater public absorbs their judgment. Polling data suggests it may cast a long shadow.  And in the meantime, a mountainous court record casts its own.

IMAGE: Former U.S. President Donald Trump departs the courthouse after being found guilty on all 34 counts in his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images)