Trump to stand trial on hush money charges in March, judge rules

15 February 2024, 18:44

Donald Trump
Trump in court for hush money hearing. Picture: PA

The former US president is accused of falsifying business records in a scheme to bury stories about his alleged extramarital affairs.

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

The decision means that the first of Trump’s four criminal prosecutions to proceed to trial is a case centred 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 took advantage of a delay in a separate prosecution in Washington charging 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 Trump.

Judge Merchan said that he expects the hush money trial to last around six weeks.

Trump Hush Money
Court sketch of Judge Juan Manuel Merchan, who set Trump’s trial date for the end of March (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Assuming the New York case remains on schedule, it will open just weeks after the Super Tuesday elections, 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.

“We strenuously object to what is happening in this courtroom,” said defence 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.”

Thursday’s appearance marked Trump’s first return visit to court in the New York criminal case since that historic indictment made him the first former president charged with a crime.

Trump Hush Money
Former president Donald Trump is the subject of several civil and criminal cases (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Since then, he has also been indicted in Florida, Georgia and Washington DC.

In recent weeks, he has blended campaign events with court appearances, attending a closed hearing on Monday in a Florida case charging him with hoarding classified records.

Judge Merchan has taken steps in recent weeks to prepare for a trial. If it goes off as planned, it would be the first of Trump’s criminal cases to go to trial.

Over the past year, the former president has lashed out at Judge 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.

Judge Merchan has acknowledged making several small donations to Democrats, including 15 US dollars (£12) to Mr Trump’s rival, Joe Biden, but said he is certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial”.

Trump Hush Money
Donald Trump has blended campaign events with court appearances (Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times via AP, Pool)

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 Trump’s Washington DC election interference case removed a major hurdle to starting the New York case on time.

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

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.

Trump Hush Money
Trump is also awaiting a decision in a civil fraud case that threatens to upend his real estate empire (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Along with clarifying the trial schedule, Judge Merchan is also expected to rule on key pre-trial issues, including a request by 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”.

Trump’s lawyers, Todd Blanche and Susan Necheles, accuse Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, of bringing the case to interfere with his 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 centres 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 Mr Trump having a child out of wedlock.

Trump says he did not have any of the alleged sexual encounters.

By Press Association

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