Former US President Donald Trump enters the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York on May 28, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

NEW YORK: Closing arguments began Tuesday in the hush money trial of Donald Trump with the White House hopeful facing the prospect of becoming the first criminally convicted former president in US history.

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

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“This is a very dangerous day for America,” Trump, who is accused of falsifying business records to pay off a porn star about an alleged sexual encounter that could have doomed his 2016 election bid, told reporters.

“We have a rigged court case that should have never been brought,” he said outside the Manhattan courtroom as three of his five children - Don Jr, Eric and Tiffany - stood behind him.

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Trump’s defence attorney kicked off the final day of arguments, telling the jury “President Trump is innocent.”

“There was no intent to defraud and beyond that there was no conspiracy to influence the 2016 election by President Trump,” he said. “He did not commit any crimes and the district attorney did not meet the burden of proof.”

Prosecutors will get the last word. They will lay out the case that Trump falsified the records to keep the hush money payment secret amid fear that the episode could sink his already rocky outsider’s bid to defeat Hillary Clinton.

The 12 jurors - whose identities have been kept secret for their protection - will then start deliberations as early as Wednesday, with a guilty verdict potentially triggering a prison sentence.

Graphic testimony

Coming less than six months before the November presidential election, in which polls show Trump neck and neck against President Joe Biden, the verdict will mark a new moment of extreme tension in an already unprecedented contest.

Trump is the first former or sitting president under criminal indictment, with charges ranging from the relatively minor hush money case to accusations that he took top secret documents and tried to overthrow the 2020 election.

The New York case, which featured more than 20 witnesses over five weeks, is the only one likely to have been completed, or even come to trial, by November 5 election day.

If convicted, Trump 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.

Trump would almost certainly appeal and a conviction would not in any case bar him from appearing on the ballot in November.

As expected, Trump chose not to testify in his defence — a move that would have exposed him to damaging cross-examination.

Instead, he was forced to sit and listen while Daniels recounted their alleged encounter in sometimes graphic detail and his once close personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen took the stand as star prosecution witness.

However, Trump has used his daily trips to the court in lower Manhattan to stage televised tirades against “corrupt” and “tyrant” Judge Juan Merchan, and to claim that the trial is a Democratic ploy to keep him off the election campaign trail. Polls do not show the trial having any impact on his strong support from right-wing voters.

Republican Trump loyalists, including several vying to be picked as his vice president on the November ticket, have become outspoken critics of the trial and in some cases have made the trek to the courtroom to sit behind him.

Unanimity required

The judge has said he expects closing arguments to take up all of Tuesday. He will then give final instructions to the jury on how to interpret the law.

To return a guilty or not guilty verdict requires unanimity. Just one holdout means a hung jury and a mistrial, although prosecutors could then seek a new trial.

Aside from Daniels, the key prosecution witness was Cohen, who testified that he had 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 storing huge quantities of classified national security documents after leaving the White House.