NATIONAL NEWS

Trump’s New York hush money case is set for trial April 15

Mar 24, 2024, 9:25 PM | Updated: Mar 25, 2024, 5:46 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — The first of Donald Trump’s four criminal trials will begin April 15, a Manhattan judge ruled Monday after tearing into the former president’s lawyers for what he said were unfounded claims that the hush-money case had been tainted by prosecutorial misconduct.

Judge Juan M. Merchan scoffed at the defense’s calls to delay the case longer or throw it out entirely because of a last-minute document dump that had bumped the first-ever trial of a former president from its scheduled Monday start. Trump vowed to appeal the ruling.

Barring another delay, the presumptive Republican nominee will be on trial as a criminal defendant in just three weeks — an inauspicious homecoming in the city where he grew up, built a real estate empire and gained wealth and celebrity that propelled him to the White House.

The trial, involving allegations related to hush money paid during Trump’s 2016 campaign to cover up marital infidelity claims, had been in limbo after his lawyers complained about a recent deluge of nearly 200,000 pages of evidence from a previous federal investigation into the matter.

Trump’s lawyers accused Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office of intentionally failing to pursue evidence from the 2018 federal investigation, which sent Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen to prison. They contended prosecutors working under Bragg, a Democrat, did so to gain an unfair advantage in the case and harm Trump’s election chances. Cohen, now a vocal Trump critic, is poised to be a key prosecution witness against his ex-boss.

Merchan bristled at the defense’s claims at a hearing Monday, saying the DA’s office had no duty to collect evidence from the federal investigation, nor was the U.S. attorney’s office required to volunteer the documents. What transpired was a “far cry” from Manhattan prosecutors “injecting themselves in the process and vehemently and aggressively trying to obstruct your ability to get documentation,” the judge said.

“It’s just not what happened,” Merchan said.

Merchan grew impatient, pressing Trump lawyer Todd Blanche to cite even a single legal precedent for his argument.

When the lawyer couldn’t, the judge laid into him, saying: “You’re literally accusing the Manhattan DA’s office and the people assigned to this case of engaging in prosecutorial misconduct and of trying to make me complicit in it. And you don’t have a single cite to support that position.”

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Colangelo said the number of relevant, usable, new documents in the recently provided evidence “is quite small” — around 300 records or fewer. Trump’s lawyers contend thousands of pages are potentially important and require painstaking review. They argued the delayed disclosures warranted dismissing the case or at least pushing it off three months.

“We are not doing our jobs if we don’t independently look at the new material,” Blanche told the judge. “Every document is important.”

The DA’s office denied wrongdoing and blamed Trump’s lawyers for bringing the time crunch upon themselves by waiting until Jan. 18 to subpoena the records from the U.S. attorney’s office — a mere nine weeks before the trial was originally supposed to start. Merchan, who earlier this month postponed the trial until at least mid-April to deal with the evidence issue, told defense lawyers that they should have acted sooner if they believed they didn’t have all the records they wanted.

Trump complained about the ruling outside court, renewing his complaint that the case is “election interference.”

“This is a case that could have been brought three and a half years ago. And now they’re fighting over days because they want to try and do it during the election. This is election interference. That’s all it is. Election interference and it’s a disgrace,” the former president said.

The hearing took place the same day a New York appeals court granted Trump a dose of good news by agreeing to hold off collection of his $454 million civil fraud judgment — if he puts up $175 million within 10 days.

The dueling developments underscored New York’s place as an epicenter of Trump’s legal peril. Though the hush money case is seen as less consequential than his other prosecutions — which charge him with conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and illegally retaining classified documents — it has taken on added importance given that it’s the only one that appears likely for trial in the coming months.

The trial will begin with jury selection, a potentially arduous task given the publicity surrounding the case and Trump’s wild unpopularity in heavily Democratic Manhattan.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to charges that he falsified business records, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, though there is no guarantee a conviction would result in jail time. Manhattan prosecutors say Trump did it as part of an effort to protect his 2016 campaign by burying what he says were false stories of extramarital sex. Trump on Monday repeated to reporters his claims that the case is a “witch hunt” and “hoax.”

Prosecutors allege that Trump falsely logged payments to Cohen, then his personal lawyer, as legal fees in his company’s books when they were for his work covering up stories that might embarrass Trump. That included $130,000 he’d paid porn actor Stormy Daniels on Trump’s behalf, so she wouldn’t publicize her claim of a sexual encounter with him years earlier.

Trump’s lawyers say the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses, not cover-up checks.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal campaign finance violations related to the Daniels payoff. He said Trump directed him to arrange it, and federal prosecutors indicated they believed him, but Trump was never charged.

Trump’s lawyers said Bragg’s office turned over just a fraction of materials from that investigation last June. The material hasn’t been made public. But Trump’s lawyers said in a court filing that some of it is “exculpatory and favorable to the defense.” The sharing of evidence, called discovery, is routine in criminal cases and is intended to help ensure a fair trial.

Bragg’s deputies have insisted they “engaged in good-faith and diligent efforts to obtain relevant information” from the federal probe. They argued in court filings that Trump’s lawyers should have spoken up earlier if they believed those efforts were lacking.

Prosecutors maintain that, in any event, the vast majority of what ultimately came is irrelevant, duplicative or backs up existing evidence about Cohen’s well-known federal conviction.

___

Tucker reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz, Philip Marcelo and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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Trump’s New York hush money case is set for trial April 15