NATIONAL NEWS

Judge sets April 15 trial date in Trump’s New York hush money case

Mar 25, 2024, 10:25 AM

Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears for a pre-trial hearing in a hush money case in criminal...

Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears for a pre-trial hearing in a hush money case in criminal court on March 25, 2024 in New York City. Trump was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records last year, which prosecutors say was an effort to hide a potential sex scandal, both before and after the 2016 election. Judge Juan Merchan is expected to set a new start date for the trial after it was delayed following the disclosure of new documents in the case. (Photo by Mary Altaffer-Pool/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mary Altaffer-Pool/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York judge has scheduled an April 15 trial date in former President Donald Trump’s hush money case.

Judge Juan M. Merchan made the ruling Monday. The judge earlier had scolded the former president’s lawyers as he weighed when to reschedule the trial after a last-minute document dump caused a postponement of the original date.

Merchan had bristled at what he suggested were baseless defense claims of “prosecutorial misconduct,” appearing unpersuaded by Trump team arguments that prosecutors had until recently concealed tens of thousands of pages of records from a previous federal investigation.

Prosecutors say only a handful of those newly records is relevant to the case, while defense lawyers contend that thousands of pages are potentially important and require a painstaking review. Merchan, who earlier this month postponed the trial until at least mid-April, told defense lawyers that they should have acted much sooner if they believed they didn’t have all the records they felt they were entitled to.

“That you don’t have a case right now is really disconcerting because the allegation that the defense makes in all of your papers is incredibly serious. Unbelievably serious,” Merchan said. “You’re accusing the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the people involved in this case of prosecutorial misconduct and of trying to make me complicit in it. And you don’t have a single cite to support that position.”

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee arrived in court for a hearing scheduled in place of the long-planned start of jury selection in the first of his four criminal cases to go to trial. It took place on a uniquely consequential day for Trump and his legal and political affairs as, besides a likely determination of a trial date, a New York appeals court on Monday granted him 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 hush money case, filed last year by prosecutors in Manhattan, has taken on added importance given that it’s the only one of the prosecutions against Trump that appears likely for trial in the coming months. The simmering documents dispute — arising from a tranche of records relating to a 2018 federal investigation into the same issues — is significant to the extent it results in a meaningful delay to the trial, which centers on years-old allegations that Trump arranged a payment to a porn actor during his 2016 presidential campaign to suppress claims of an extramarital affair.

The district attorney’s office said there was little new material in the trove and no reason for further delay, with prosecutor Matthew Colangelo saying in court Monday that the number of relevant, usable, new documents “is quite small” — around 300 records or fewer.

“We very much disagree,” countered defense lawyer Todd Blanche, who said the number totaled in the thousands and continues to grow. Trump’s lawyers argue that the delayed disclosures warrant dismissing the case or at least pushing it off three months.

“We’re not doing our jobs if we don’t independently review the materials,” Blanche said. “Every document is important.”

But Merchan seemed unmoved, asking Blanche why the defense team, which subpoenaed for the records in January, didn’t bring up concerns about potentially missing documents weeks earlier.

“Why did you wait until two months before trial? Why didn’t you do it in June or July,” Merchan said.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to charges that he falsified business records. 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.” The prosecutor overseeing the case, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, is a Democrat.

The case centers on allegations that Trump falsely logged $130,000 in payments as legal fees in his company’s books “to disguise his and others’ criminal conduct,” as Bragg’s deputies put it in a court document.

The money went to Trump’s then-personal attorney Michael Cohen, but prosecutors say it wasn’t for actual legal work. Rather, they say, Cohen was just recouping money 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 charges, including campaign finance violations related to the Daniels payoff. He said Trump directed him to arrange it, and federal prosecutors indicated they believed him, but they never charged Trump with any crime related to the matter.

Cohen is now a key witness in Manhattan prosecutors’ case against Trump.

Trump’s lawyers have said Bragg’s office, in June, gave them a smidgen of materials from the federal investigation into Cohen. Then they got over 100,000 pages more after subpoenaing federal prosecutors themselves in January. The defense argues that prosecutors should have pursued all the records but instead stuck their heads in the sand, hoping to keep information from Trump.

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,” adding that there’s information that would have aided their own investigation and consequential legal filings earlier in the case.

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. They acknowledged in a court filing that there was some relevant new material, including 172 pages of notes recording Cohen’s meetings with the office of former special counsel Robert Mueller, who investigated Russia’s 2016 election interference.

Prosecutors argued that their adversaries have enough time to work with the relevant material before a mid-April trial date and are just raising a “red herring.”

Trump’s lawyers also have sought to delay the trial until after the Supreme Court rules on his claims of presidential immunity in his election interference case in Washington. The high court is set to hear arguments April 25.

___

Tucker reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo contributed to this report.

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Judge sets April 15 trial date in Trump’s New York hush money case