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Trump’s New York hush-money case will start March 25. It’s the first of his criminal trials

Feb 14, 2024, 9:02 PM | Updated: Feb 15, 2024, 11:02 am

FILE - This artist sketch depicts former President Donald Trump, far left, pleading not guilty as t...

FILE - This artist sketch depicts former President Donald Trump, far left, pleading not guilty as the Clerk of the Court reads the charges and asks him "How do you plea?" Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in a Manhattan courtroom in New York, as his attorney Joseph Tacopina, center, watches. Trump is expected in court Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, for a hearing in his New York hush-money criminal case, which now appears increasingly likely to go to trial in March. Judge Juan Manuel Merchan is expected to rule on key pretrial issues and say for certain if the former president's trial will begin as scheduled on March 25. (Elizabeth Williams via AP, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Elizabeth Williams via AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s hush-money trial will go ahead as scheduled with jury selection starting on March 25, a New York judge ruled Thursday, turning aside demands for delay from the former president’s defense lawyers who argued it would interfere with his campaign to retake the White House.

The decision means that the first of Trump’s four criminal prosecutions to proceed to trial is a case centered on years-old accusations that he sought to bury stories about extramarital affairs that arose during his 2016 presidential run. Other cases charge him with plotting to overturn the results of the 2020 election and illegally hoarding classified documents at his Florida estate.

In leaving the trial date intact, Judge Juan Manuel Merchan pointed to the recent delay in the separate prosecution in Washington related to efforts to undo the election. That case, originally set for trial on March 4, has been effectively frozen pending the outcome of Trump’s appeal on the legally untested question of whether a former president enjoys immunity from prosecution for actions taken while in office.

Noting that he had resisted defense lawyer urgings from months ago to postpone the trial, Merchan said: “I’m glad I took that position because here we are — the D.C. case did not go forward.” He said he decided to stick with the trial date after speaking last week with the judge in the Washington trial, Tanya Chutkan.

The hush money trial is expected to last six weeks, Merchan said.

Assuming the New York case remains on schedule, it will open just weeks after the Super Tuesday primaries, colliding on the political calendar with a time period in which Trump will be looking to sew up the Republican race and emerge as the presumptive nominee in this year’s presidential contest. His attorneys cited that schedule in urging the judge to reconsider the March trial date.

“We strenuously object to what is happening in this courtroom,” said defense lawyer Todd Blanche, adding that “the fact that we are now going to spend, President Trump is now going to spend, the next two months working on this trial instead of out of on the campaign trial running for president is something that should not happen in this country.”

Trump made a similar case after leaving the courtroom, telling reporters that “instead of being in South Carolina and other states campaigning, I’m stuck here,” he said.

“We’ll just have to figure it out,” he added. “I’ll be here during the day and I’ll be campaigning during the night.”

In fact, Trump has repeatedly attended court proceedings where his presence was not required and went to court Thursday voluntarily. The judge had said he could join remotely by video from Georgia, where he was contemplating attending a simultaneous hearing in his criminal case there.

Thursday marked 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.

The hearing was held amid 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. On Monday, for instance, he voluntarily attended a closed hearing in a Florida case charging him with hoarding classified records.

A separate hearing was unfolding in Atlanta on Thursday as a judge considered arguments on whether to toss Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis off of the state’s election interference case because of a personal relationship with a special prosecutor she hired.

The New York case has long been considered the least legally perilous of the four indictments filed against Trump last year, with the alleged misconduct — generally known to the public for years — seen by many as less grave than accusations of mishandling classified documents or plotting to subvert a presidential election.

The Washington case charging him with election interference was officially delayed last month, with the Supreme Court now weighing the immunity question. There’s no new date. The classified documents case in Florida is set for trial on May 20, but that date could be moved. No trial date is scheduled in the Atlanta case.

Over the past year, Trump has lashed out at 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. Merchan has acknowledged making several small donations to Democrats, including $15 to Trump’s rival Biden, but said he’s certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial.”

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 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, Merchan also rejected a request by Trump’s lawyers to throw out the case.

Trump’s lawyers accuse Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, of bringing the case to interfere with Trump’s political chances. 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. Trump says he didn’t have any of the alleged sexual encounters.

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 McDougal $150,000 in a practice known as “catch-and-kill.”

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

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

___

Tucker reported from Washington.

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Trump’s New York hush-money case will start March 25. It’s the first of his criminal trials