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Trump’s first criminal trial set for March in N.Y. on hush money charges

NEW YORK — A judge ruled Thursday that jury selection for Donald Trump’s hush money trial would begin March 25, setting a date with history for what would be the first criminal prosecution of an ex-president — one who also leads the Republican field of 2024 candidates for the White House.

Trump watched impassively from a defense table in Manhattan criminal court as New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan said he will go forward with the trial on charges that Trump falsified business records during the heat of the 2016 political campaign to keep secret a past sexual liaison with an adult-film star. The judge said he expects the trial to take about six weeks.

Under that schedule, in which the trial would stretch from late March to early May, this spring’s presidential nominating season will bounce between primaries around the country and a high-profile criminal trial about an alleged coverup that prosecutors say broke financial laws.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche pushed back against Merchan’s decision, insisting the defense needs more time to prepare and that a trial will unfairly interfere with Trump’s quest to return to the White House. He also noted that the former president is scheduled for trial in late May in Florida on charges of illegally retaining classified documents and obstructing government attempts to retrieve them. The judge in that case, however, has indicated that she may delay the proceedings to allow more time for the lawyers to review highly classified evidence.

Among the four separate indictments of Trump, the one in New York has been viewed by some legal experts as the least weighty, given that it involves conduct from eight years ago that was also investigated by federal prosecutors, who declined to charge Trump. Nevertheless, the case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) appears destined to be first to come before a jury, despite the objections of Trump’s lawyers.

“We have been faced with extremely compressed and expedited schedules in each and every one of those trials,” Blanche said. “It’s truly an impossible position for any person to be in.”

In response, Merchan told Blanche that judges in the Trump cases simply could not wait around to see what other courts might or might not do, and said it was time to move forward. The judge showed little patience for Blanche’s arguments, saying he’d heard most of them before and found them lacking.

“Stop interrupting me please,” Merchan snapped at one point. “… I’ve tried to work with you.”

The discussion in the courtroom soon turned to jury selection, including what questions to ask of potential jurors to ensure they can fairly sit in judgment in a legal case that has no precedent and in which the defendant is a deeply polarizing public figure.

There is still a slim chance the New York trial could end up taking a back seat to a separate federal case against Trump for allegedly conspiring to obstruct the results of the 2020 election. But those charges, filed in Washington, have been hung up for months in an appeals fight over Trump’s claims of presidential immunity. While one appeals court ruled unanimously against him, Trump may take his argument to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could keep that trial on hold for weeks or months more.

Merchan said at the hearing Thursday that he has been conferring with U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is presiding over the D.C. trial, and that after consulting with her, “We’re moving ahead to jury selection on March 25.”

Merchan also issued a 30-page decision rejecting Trump’s request to toss the case on grounds that prosecutors denied Trump his rights by letting too much time pass before filing charges. The judge found that any delay was excused or justified. Merchan denied the defense team’s bid to dismiss the case for what they argued was a discriminatory prosecution. But he slightly limited the scope of what prosecutors could argue about Trump’s allegedly illegal motives for producing false records.

In the hallway outside the courtroom, Trump vowed to campaign in the evenings while attending his New York trial. It is expected to last about six weeks, with the prosecution case taking up to 17 trial days. Since the trial will be held four days a week, that means the government’s case will take about a month.

“They want to keep me nice and busy so I can’t campaign so hard. But maybe we won’t have to campaign so hard because the other side is incompetent,” Trump said. “I’m going to have to sit here for months on a trial. I think it’s ridiculous, it’s unfair.”

In a statement, Bragg said he was pleased with Merchan’s decision and looked forward to the trial next month.

As Trump was appearing in front of Merchan, a separate proceeding played out in an Atlanta courtroom, where a judge heard evidence about the romantic relationship between Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D) and her lead prosecutor in a sprawling case filed against Trump and more than a dozen others for allegedly conspiring to block the 2020 election results in that state. Defense lawyers have argued the Willis relationship has tainted the case, which Willis denies.

The charges in the New York business records case arose from Trump’s alleged misclassification of reimbursement payments to Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer. Cohen is now an outspoken Trump critic who has made a career out of publicly trashing the former president.

In 2016, with the presidential election looming, Cohen paid adult-film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump years earlier. Bragg has accused Trump of reimbursing Cohen for that hush money with payments described as legal fees, when in fact they were a campaign expense meant to keep Trump’s presidential bid untarnished by tawdry allegations of a tryst.

Cohen is expected to testify for the prosecution. But he pleaded guilty in federal court to financial crimes and false statements, and lawyers generally view his credibility as a weakness in the case.

Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records, a felony in New York when the purpose of the fraud is to “commit another crime or to aid or conceal” an illegal act. In announcing the charges, Bragg said the goal of Trump’s scheme was to cover up violations of the law including New York and federal campaign finance rules. Bragg also said the $130,000 payment exceeded the federal campaign contribution cap.

Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied all wrongdoing. He complains that the New York charges — and the three other indictments he faces — are politically motivated efforts to derail his White House candidacy.

The former president was an attentive but quiet presence in the New York courtroom during the hearing, which began just after 9:30 a.m. and ended shortly after 11 a.m. Sitting at the defense table, Trump had brief, whispered conversations with the lawyers near him, and occasionally with Blanche. But he did not speak out or interrupt, in contrast to his more combative presence during a civil trial in New York last month.

Trump holds a wide lead among Republican candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, and a conviction would not bar him from running or holding office.

There are different potential consequences for Trump in each of the cases. A conviction in the New York case, for example, might or might not lead to a jail sentence. But it would be a conviction that, even if elected, Trump could not pardon or erase because it is a state case, not federal.

At the hearing, Bragg’s team suggested potential jurors should be asked whether they have affiliations to fringe political groups such as QAnon, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers or antifa. The defense wants to ask whether any prospective jurors have had political bumper stickers on their cars or political signs in their yards, even though all candidates will be from Manhattan, where many people live without cars or front lawns.

Another question could be whether they have read books by Cohen or former prosecutor Mark Pomerantz, who wrote about his time investigating Trump for the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Pomerantz’s book was a major topic of controversy after Bragg decided not to bring a criminal case based on allegedly fraudulent business practices at the Trump Organization. In response, Pomerantz and another veteran prosecutor resigned.

Prosecutors and Trump’s defense team disagreed over how much to press potential jurors about past political donations. One proposed juror question — if they have ever contributed to a campaign or political action committee — was too broad, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass argued to Merchan.

Blanche said that given the nature of the allegations against Trump — whether hush money payments amounted to a campaign expenditure involving a past and current candidate for president — the issue cannot be ignored in screening jurors. The court also “can’t step away from the fact that someone who gave money” for or against Trump in 2016, 2020 or 2024 may be unfairly biased, Blanche said.

Merchan voiced concerns that such questioning could go too far.

“If you’re going to strike everyone who is a Democrat or Republican, you are going to run out” of challenges to potential jurors very quickly, he said.

As the hearing came to an end, Blanche once more tried to convince Merchan to change his mind about a late March trial, saying: “We strenuously object to what is happening in this courtroom.”

“President Trump is going to now spend the next two months working on this trial instead of out on the campaign trail,” Blanche continued, adding that “is something that should not happen in this country.”

Merchan urged him to get to the point.

“What is your legal argument?” the judge asked.

“That is my legal argument,” Blanche insisted.

“That is not a legal argument,” the judge said as he ended the hearing. “See you on March 25th.”

As Blanche departed, a person in the back of the room clapped loudly. It was unclear whether the clapping was in response to Blanche’s remarks or if they were applauding Trump as he walked by.

“Quiet in the audience!” a court officer said.

Marianne LeVine in Washington contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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