The Jury Is Still Deliberating. Here’s What to Make of Their First Questions.

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Read our ongoing coverage of Donald Trump’s first criminal trial here.

On Wednesday, the Manhattan jury responsible for deciding former President Donald J. Trump’s hush money trial deliberated for four and a half hours before going home for the day without a verdict. While the lack of verdict on Day 1 of deliberations is good news for Trump, the first note that the jury sent Justice Juan Merchan conveyed the opposite message.

Trump himself seemed anxious about the potential for a speedy conviction today. After jury instructions were read, the former president took to his hallway–slash–press area outside of the courtroom to declare that “Mother Teresa could not beat those charges.”

He doesn’t have much indication of what the jurors are thinking. As they have done throughout the trial, jurors did not look Trump in the eye as they passed him while entering and exiting the courtroom. As a pair of jurors were handed a laptop containing all of the evidence in the case and received instructions on how to use it from the prosecution team, they both smiled with that prosecution team member. That smile was as much as we had to go off of for 3 hours and 20 minutes, until they sent their note.

That note contained four questions that were heavily focused on the testimony of the prosecution’s first and most credible witness, former American Media chief executive David Pecker. The requests are as follows:

1. Pecker’s testimony regarding a key phone conversation with Trump.

2. Pecker’s testimony regarding his decision not to finalize and fund the assignment of Karen McDougal’s life rights.

3. Pecker’s testimony regarding the Trump Tower meeting where the conspiracy to influence the 2016 election was allegedly hatched in August 2015.

4. Michael Cohen’s testimony regarding that same Trump Tower meeting.

The problem for Trump? These are the central pieces of the case the prosecution made that show a conspiracy to illegally influence the 2016 election. That the payment was in fact an effort to influence the election is what they must prove to elevate the false documents charges against Trump from a misdemeanor to a felony. So: Asking for details on precisely that does not look good for Trump.

Less than an hour after sending out this first note, the jury sent another note requesting that the judge’s 55-page jury instructions be read back to them. It was unclear if the jurors wanted them read in their entirety, but regardless, they were dismissed and asked to return in the morning to let the judge know what exactly what they want read.

The critical point outside observers can take from these early moves is to remember this: Pecker was an outstanding witness for the prosecution.  As the prosecution’s first witness, Pecker laid out how in August 2015, weeks after Trump announced his candidacy, the former National Enquirer boss, Cohen, and Trump met at Trump Tower to establish the terms of the allegedly illegal efforts Pecker would undertake to boost Trump’s candidacy.

Here is Pecker’s description of that meeting from the testimony in question: “I would run or publish positive stories about Mr. Trump and I would publish negative stories about his opponent,” Pecker testified, regarding his promises in that Aug. 2015 Trump Tower meeting. He would also be the “eyes and ears” of the campaign to help identify stories from women alleging sex scandals with Trump to have those stories killed.

Cohen, Pecker, and Trump would then specifically target candidates with negative articles, such as “Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson Left Sponge in Patient’s Brain!” and “Ted Cruz Sex Scandal—Five Secret Mistresses” based on how well Trump’s opponents were doing in the polls.

Pecker’s testimony was completely confirmed later on in the trial by Cohen, though he came off as a far less credible witness than the National Enquirer honcho. “What was discussed [at that Trump Tower meeting] was the power of the National Enquirer in terms of being located at the cash register of so many supermarkets and bodegas; that if we can place positive stories about Mr. Trump, that would be beneficial; that if we could place negative stories about some of the other candidates, that would also be beneficial,” Cohen testified. “What he said was that he could keep an eye out for anything negative about Mr. Trump, and that he would be able to help us to know in advance what was coming out and try to stop it from coming out.”

Now here’s what the judge told the jurors would elevate the crime to a felony:

Section 17-152 of the New York Election Law provides that any two or more persons who conspire to promote or prevent the election of any person to a public office by unlawful means and which conspiracy is acted upon by one or more of the parties thereto, shall be guilty of conspiracy to promote or prevent an election.

That’s why the alleged conspiracy is central to the prosecutor’s case, and why this early request for clarification looks so bad for Trump. Further, the other two questions jurors asked about did not seem particularly good for Trump, either. One referred to Pecker’s decision not to hand over McDougal’s life rights to Trump in exchange for a reimbursement of the payment AMI had made to McDougal. Even though Trump wanted that exchange at that point, Pecker changed his mind about the reimbursement after speaking with a campaign finance lawyer. The timing of the reversal implied that Pecker understood what he was doing for Trump might be criminal.

The other question referred to a phone call that Pecker said he had with Trump when Pecker was at a meeting with AMI investors in June 2016. Here are the details of that call and what ensued, as described by Pecker:

When I got on the phone, Mr. Trump said to me, “I spoke to Michael. Karen is a nice girl. Is it true that a Mexican group is looking to buy her story for $8 million dollars?” I said: “I absolutely don’t believe that there is a Mexican group out there to buy a story for $8 million.” And then he said: “What do you think I should do?” I said: “I think you should buy the story and take it off the market.”


He said to me, clearly, that he doesn’t buy stories because it always gets out. And he said to me that Michael Cohen would be calling me. He was going to speak to Michael and he would be calling me. …. [Cohen] called me and … he said: “You should go ahead and buy this story. ” So, I said to him, I said: “I’m going to have [National Enquirer editor] Dylan Howard negotiate the terms.” And then I said, “Who’s going to pay for it?” So, he said to me: “Don’t worry. I’m your friend. The Boss will take care of it.”

The jury being so interested in whether or not “the boss” would “take care of it” at this stage in deliberations is probably something the boss does not want to be hearing.