Trump to stand trial on March 25 in criminal hush money case

The former US President is charged with falsifying business records to cover up the $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election

By Reuters

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Donald Trump awaits the start of a hearing in New York City Criminal Court on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
Donald Trump awaits the start of a hearing in New York City Criminal Court on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

Published: Thu 15 Feb 2024, 8:29 PM

Donald Trump will become the first former US president to stand trial on criminal charges after a New York judge on Thursday denied his request to dismiss an indictment stemming from hush money paid to a porn star and set a March 25 trial date.

Justice Juan Merchan's ruling during a testy hearing in Manhattan means that Trump will stand trial in at least one the four criminal cases he faces as he pursues the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the November 5 US election.

Trump, 77, had asked Merchan to toss the 34-count indictment, which charges him with falsifying business records to cover up the $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. Merchan took less than 10 minutes to deny his request and confirm the trial date.

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Ahead of the hearing, Trump repeated his claims that the case is politically motivated.

"They wouldn't have brought this except for the fact — no way — except for the fact that I'm running for president and doing well," Trump said in a hallway outside the courtroom.

A handful of protesters held signs denouncing Trump and shouted "no dictators in the USA." outside the courthouse.

Republican nomination

Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat. The trial is set to start before Trump's three other criminal cases.

The case centres on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's $130,000 payment to Daniels — whose real name is Stephanie Clifford — to prevent her from publicly speaking ahead of the 2016 election about a sexual encounter she has said she had with Trump a decade earlier. Trump has denied this occurred.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating federal campaign finance laws.

Trump may effectively have wrapped up the Republican nomination by the time the trial is scheduled to start. He has won the first four state nominating contests. Dozens more will have taken place before the trial date. Opinion polls show him with a wide lead over his lone remaining primary challenger, Nikki Haley, and effectively tied with Biden.

But one in four Republicans and about half of independent voters have indicated they would not vote for Trump if he is convicted in any of his four criminal cases, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday.

'Election interference'

Trump's lawyer Todd Blanche during the hearing pressed Merchan to reconsider the March 25 trial date, citing scheduling issues with the other cases.

"It is completely election interference to say that you are going to sit in this courtroom in Manhattan when there's no reason for it," Blanche said.

"He's not going to be at more than one criminal trial at the same time," Merchan said. "Stop interrupting me, please."

Blanche said he might try to move the trial out of Manhattan, where Trump is likely to face a liberal-leaning jury pool.

Trump's political and legal calendars are increasingly overlapping ahead of his expected rematch with Biden, who defeated him in the 2020 election. Trump has used his frequent court dates to help raise money for his presidential campaign, though the strategy is seeing diminishing returns after he raked in millions around his first appearances last year.

Another hearing

In a separate court hearing on Thursday, Trump's lawyers asked a Georgia judge to disqualify the prosecutor who charged him and several allies with crimes involving trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden in the state. The prosecutor, Fani Willis, has admitted to having a romantic relationship with a lawyer on her team.

Trump also faces federal charges in Washington over his efforts to overturn his election loss and in Florida over his handling of classified documents. Trump has pleaded not guilty in all the cases.

Prosecutors in the hush money case have said Trump's New York-based family real estate company recorded Trump's 2017 reimbursements to Cohen as legal expenses, violating a state law against falsifying business records to conceal another crime. They have said Trump was seeking to cover up federal campaign finance law violations as well as violations of a state law that prohibits promoting a candidacy by unlawful means.

'Selective prosecution'

Trump's lawyers have argued that he had been targeted for "selective prosecution." Bragg's office has said anyone else who behaved similarly would have been prosecuted, pointing to Cohen's guilty plea.

Trump's lawyers also have argued that state prosecutors cannot use Trump's alleged concealment of federal election law violations to justify the false records charges, and that the state law does not apply to federal elections.

Bragg's office has said the business records falsification law was not restricted to cases involving state-level crimes, and that the state law applies to both federal and state elections.


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