NATIONAL NEWS

Delay tactics and quick trips: Takeaways from two Trump case hearings in New York and Georgia

Feb 15, 2024, 11:56 AM

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump ‘s unprecedented tangle of overlapping trials was on full display Thursday with simultaneous court hearings in New York and Georgia.

In Manhattan, a judge ruled that Trump’s hush-money case will begin on March 25, making it the first of his indictments to go to trial. So there are 39 days before he becomes the first former president in U.S. history to be tried on criminal charges.

By that time, Trump could very well have won enough Republican delegates to be his party’s presumptive nominee.

In Atlanta, attorneys grilled a special prosecutor on the Georgia election interference indictment against Trump over the prosecutor’s romantic relationship with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, trying to get Willis and her office thrown off the case.

Tuesday’s hearings previewed what a general election campaign will look like as Trump flies back and forth from courtrooms and campaign rallies and blurs the lines between the two.

On his way into court into New York, Trump proclaimed his innocence but posed what will be the fundamental question of the presidential campaign going forward.

“How can you run for election if you’re sitting in a courthouse in Manhattan all day long?” he asked.

Here are other takeaways from two courtrooms on Thursday:

DELAY, DELAY, DELAY

As they have with all of his cases, Trump’s lawyers vigorously argued to delay the proceedings, citing the political calendar and Trump’s other cases, including one in Washington over his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election that is effectively on hold pending the outcome of an appeal.

Trump attorney Todd Blanche repeatedly cast the March 25 date as unfair and unrealistic, asking Judge Juan Merchan to hold off on making a decision. It would be impossible, he argued, for Trump and his attorneys to adequately prepare given the combined “millions of pages of discovery” across Trump’s cases.

Blanche echoed Trump’s longstanding claims of politicization, asserting that being forced to sit inside a courtroom during primary season amounted to “election interference.”

“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 … on the campaign trail running for president is something that should not happen in this country,” Blanche said.

Merchan rejected his arguments.

JUGGLING ACT

The New York trial will last about six weeks, according to Merchan. That means Trump will be expected to be in court from March 25 through the first week or so of May from 9:30a.m. to 4:30p.m. every day except for Wednesday.

Asked how he planned to balance the campaign trail with the trial, Trump told reporters he’ll campaign in the evening.

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

In reality, that’s not much different from what he’s been doing all along.

He attended court in New York on Tuesday having held a rally the night before in South Carolina, which hosts the next Republican primary on Feb. 24.

Throughout his campaign, Trump has kept a far lighter campaign schedule than most of his Republican rivals. Many weeks, he holds just one or two public events — a schedule that his last remaining rival, Nikki Haley, has tried to highlight. She noted Trump’s Wednesday trip to her home state was just his second in 80 days.

Trump has also repeatedly chosen to appear in court even when not required. He spent days voluntarily sitting in on his New York civil fraud trial and a defamation case that ended with him being ordered to pay an additional $83.3 million to writer E. Jean Carroll after a jury found him liable of sexually assaulting her.

OFFICE ROMANCE

The Atlanta hearing, meanwhile, took on the tone of a soap opera even without Trump present. Thousands of people watched livestreams online and on cable news. And “Fani Willis” was a trending topic on Google and X, formerly Twitter.

A former friend and coworker of Willis, the chief prosecutor of Fulton County, testified there was “no doubt” that Willis and Wade were involved in a romantic relationship after seeing the two hugging and kissing years before he was hired as special prosecutor and before he officially filed for divorce.

Nathan Wade, the special prosecutor, filed for divorce in 2021 but told the court his marriage “was irretrievably broken” in 2015 when his wife had an affair. They agreed, he said, to stay together until their children moved out to go to college.

Ashleigh Merchant, the attorney for Trump co-defendant Michael Roman who filed the motion for removal, asked about trips and expenses Willis and Wade took together and whether Willis paid back. Wade was asked if he ever talked about their relationship with other people.

“We are private people,” Wade said. “Our relationship was not a secret, just private.”

Another attorney questioned Wade about when he began having “sexual relations” with Willis, who acknowledged under questioning that he had sex with Willis during his separation from his estranged wife, even though he had claimed that wasn’t the case in divorce filings.

The hours of questioning played into a time-honored Trump strategy when under investigation. He has spotlighted extramarital affairs and other personal details of investigators, agents, prosecutors and judges he sees as enemies in attempts to discredit and humiliate them publicly.

‘I’M NOT A HOSTILE WITNESS’

Willis took the stand right after Wade and immediately accused Merchant, the attorney for co-defendant Roman, of repeatedly lying and wrongly seeking salacious details about her personal life.

“It’s highly offensive when someone lies on you, and it’s highly offensive when they try to implicate that you slept with somebody the first day you met with them, and I take exception to it,” she told Merchant.

Willis often confronted Merchant during the testimony, accusing her repeatedly of lying and stating in annoyance the attorney was not listening to her answers.

“I’m not a hostile witness,” Willis said before the judge said she was an “adverse witness” opposing the attorney.

She testified at length about her romantic relationship with Wade, mentioning how much she paid for flights to Miami and how he liked wine while she preferred Grey Goose vodka. She said their relationship ended last summer but they remained friends.

As Merchant tried to get more details, Willis was defiant and her voice rose.

“Do you think I’m on trial? These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020,” she said. “I’m not on trial no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

THE COURT AS THE CAMPAIGN

Thursday’s hearings underscored how Trump had turned his court appearances into the heart of his campaign message. The strategy has been successful in a GOP primary season filled with voters who overwhelmingly support him.

But it is unclear whether the tactic will be as effective in a general election. The suburban and independent voters Trump needs to win over are far more wary of electing a man who could be a convicted felon by the time both parties hold their conventions this summer.

Still, Trump could be bolstered by the fact that what is widely seen as his weakest legal case will now be coming first. The case, which centers on years-old accusations that Trump sought to bury stories about extramarital affairs that arose during his 2016 presidential campaign, is complicated and carries far less severe penalties than his other cases, including charges in Florida related to his hoarding of highly classified documents.

Haley’s campaign, meanwhile, tried to capitalize on the hearings, with her spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas noting that, as Trump was in a New York courtroom, “Nikki was making her way to Texas to raise more money and campaign in the Super Tuesday state.”

“That’s what voters can expect from the two candidates, in a nutshell. One who is embattled by chaos, drama, and personal grievances. And another who understands the stakes, is fighting to earn every vote, and who is putting it all on the line for this country,” she said.

___

Gomez Licon reported from Miami. Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak, Jennifer Peltz and Jake Offenhartz in New York and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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Delay tactics and quick trips: Takeaways from two Trump case hearings in New York and Georgia