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Trump's First Criminal Trial Set for March 25


Former President Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan criminal court, Feb. 15, 2024, in New York.
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Manhattan criminal court, Feb. 15, 2024, in New York.

A New York judge on Thursday set the stage for the first ever criminal trial of a former U.S. president, rejecting Donald Trump’s bid to dismiss charges accusing him of falsifying business records to hide a hush money payment to a porn star ahead of his successful 2016 White House run.

Judge Juan Merchan, over Trump’s objection that a trial would interfere with his campaign to reclaim the presidency in the November election, said jury selection would start March 25.

Rather than campaigning, Trump would be required to be in court every weekday for what some lawyers involved in the case are predicting could be a six-week trial.

Trump, 77, is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. He is likely to again face Democratic President Joe Biden, 81, whom Trump lost to in 2020 but to this day falsely claims he was cheated out reelection because of voting irregularities.

Trump is facing an unprecedented four indictments encompassing 91 charges, two involving allegations he illegally tried to upend his 2020 loss, another accusing him of illegally taking highly classified documents with him to his Florida oceanside estate when his presidential term ended in early 2021 and the New York case.

He has denied all the allegations.

Trump could face years in prison if convicted of any of the charges, but he has treated his frequent court appearances as campaign stops with impromptu, derogatory complaints about the charges he is facing and accusing prosecutors of trying to keep him from winning the presidency again.

As he walked into court Thursday, he told reporters, "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.”

In the New York case, a 34-count indictment accuses him of falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels to keep her from disclosing her allegation that she had a one-night tryst with Trump a decade earlier at a celebrity golf tournament. He has repeatedly rejected her claim.

Trump’s chief accuser in the New York case is Michael Cohen, his one-time attorney and political fixer, who says he made the hush money payment to Daniels and then was reimbursed in a string of payments after Trump became president in 2017.

Cohen said at one point Trump assured him in a White House meeting early in his presidency that his next monthly payment was on its way to him.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating federal campaign finance laws and lying to Congress in connection with the case. He served 13½ months of a three-year prison sentence and another year and a half in home confinement.

Once known for his fierce loyalty to Trump, Cohen turned on his former boss in pointed testimony before a congressional panel in 2019, where he declared, “I am not protecting Mr. Trump anymore.” Cohen labeled him a "con man" and a "cheat."

As his prison term ended in late 2021, Cohen said, “I will not cease my commitment to law enforcement. I will continue to provide information, testimony, documents and my full cooperation on all ongoing investigations to ensure that others are held responsible for their dirty deeds.”

At the center of the prosecution’s case is the claim that Trump illegally recorded the hush money reimbursements to Cohen as business expenses for Cohen’s legal work rather than as expenses for the campaign to win the presidency against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump has argued that state laws governing business records do not apply to federal elections.

It is not certain when Trump’s other criminal trials might start. A three-judge federal appellate court in Washington last week unanimously ruled that Trump was not immune from facing charges that he illegally plotted to upend his 2020 reelection loss by actions he took in the waning weeks of his presidency.

Trump has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the country’s highest court has yet to say whether it will hear arguments in the case or let the lower court ruling stand and the trial proceed. It originally was planned for a March 4 start but has been delayed indefinitely.

In a separate court hearing on Thursday in the southern city of Atlanta, Trump's lawyers are asking a Georgia judge to disqualify the prosecutor who charged him and several political allies with crimes involving their effort to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state.

The elected prosecutor, Fani Willis, has admitted to having a romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, a lawyer she hired to help prosecute the case. Lawyers for Trump and some of his co-defendants are claiming that the hefty salary Wade is being paid footed the bill for several vacations he took with Willis, and that as a result the criminal allegations are tainted.