Donald Trump’s New York hush-money trial will begin in March with jury selection

Judge Juan Manuel Merchan said on February 15 that he made the decision after speaking with the judge in Mr. Trump’s now-delayed federal election interference case in the nation's capital

Updated - February 15, 2024 08:57 pm IST

Published - February 15, 2024 08:40 pm IST - NEW YORK

Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears during a court hearing on charges of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to a porn star before the 2016 election, in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., February 15, 2024.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears during a court hearing on charges of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to a porn star before the 2016 election, in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., February 15, 2024. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Donald Trump’s hush-money trial will go ahead as scheduled with jury selection starting on March 25, a judge ruled Thursday, turning aside requests for a delay from the former President’s defense lawyers.

In leaving the trial date intact, Judge Juan Manuel Merchan took advantage of a delay in a separate prosecution in Washington charging Mr. Trump with plotting to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election. That case has been effectively on hold pending the outcome of an appeal from Mr. Trump.

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The decision means that a case centered on years-old accusations that Mr. Trump sought to bury stories about extramarital affairs that arose during his 2016 presidential campaign will be the first of the four criminal prosecutions against Mr. Trump to proceed to trial. Other cases charge him seeking to undo the election and illegally hoarding classified documents at his Florida estate.

Mr. Trump’s attorneys blasted the decision to keep the March date, complaining that Mr. Trump will have to stand trial in New York at the same time as he is attempting to sew up the Republican nomination.

“It is completely election interference to say ‘you are going to sit in this courtroom in Manhattan,” said defense lawyer Todd Blanche.

Mr. Trump entered the courthouse shortly before 9 a.m.

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It was Mr. Trump’s first return visit to court in the New York case since that historic indictment made him the first ex-President charged with a crime. Since then, he has also been indicted in Florida, Georgia and Washington, D.C. In recent weeks, he’s blended campaign events with court appearances, attending on Monday a closed hearing in a Florida case charging him with hoarding classified records.

Over the past year, Mr. Trump has lashed out at Mr. Merchan as a “Trump-hating judge,” asked him to step down from the case and sought to move the case from state court to federal court, all to no avail. Mr. Merchan has acknowledged making several small donations to Democrats, including $15 to Mr. Trump’s rival Joe Biden, but said he’s certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial.”

Thursday’s proceeding is part of a busy, overlapping stretch of legal activity for the Republican presidential front-runner, who has increasingly made his court involvement part of his political campaign.

The recent postponement of a March 4 trial date in Mr. Trump’s Washington, D.C. election interference case removed a major hurdle to starting the New York case on time.

Just as the New York hearing was getting underway, a judge in Atlanta was set to hear arguments Thursday over whether Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should be disqualified from Mr. Trump’s Georgia election interference case because of a “personal relationship” with Nathan Wade, a special prosecutor she hired for the case.

Also Read | Trump directed me to pay hush money, says his ex-lawyer Michael Cohen

Mr. Trump is also awaiting a decision, possibly as early as Friday, in a New York civil fraud case that threatens to upend his real estate empire. If the judge rules against Mr. Trump, who is accused of inflating his wealth to defraud banks, insurers and others, he could be on the hook for millions of dollars in penalties among other sanctions.

Along with clarifying the trial schedule, Mr. Merchan is also expected to rule on key pretrial issues, including a request by Mr. Trump’s lawyers to throw out the case, which they have decried in court papers as a “discombobulated package of politically motivated charges marred by legal defects.”

Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Todd Blanche and Susan Necheles, accuse Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, of bringing the case to interfere with Mr. Trump’s chances of retaking the White House. Mr. Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., declined to pursue a case on the same allegations.

The charges are punishable by up to four years in prison, though there is no guarantee that a conviction would result in prison time.

The case centers on payoffs to two women, porn actor Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, as well as to a Trump Tower doorman who claimed to have a story about Trump having a child out of wedlock. Mr. Trump says he didn’t have any of the alleged sexual encounters.

Also Read | The porn star, the President and ‘hush money’: Why Donald Trump faces arrest

Mr. Trump’s lawyer at the time, Michael Cohen, paid Daniels $130,000 and arranged for the publisher of the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid to pay Ms. McDougal $150,000 in a practice known as “catch-and-kill.”

Mr. Trump’s company then paid Mr. Cohen $420,000 and logged the payments as legal expenses, not reimbursements, prosecutors said. Mr. Bragg charged Mr. Trump last year with falsifying internal records kept by his company, the Trump Organization, to hide the true nature of payments.

Mr. Trump’s legal team has argued that no crime was committed.

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