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New York hush money case will be first Trump criminal trial, set for March

NEW YORK — A judge said Thursday that jury selection for Donald Trump’s trial would begin March 25, setting a date with history for what would be the first criminal prosecution of an ex-president — one who also leads the Republican field of 2024 candidates for the White House.

Trump watched from a defense table in Manhattan criminal court as New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan said he will go forward with the trial on charges that Trump falsified business records during the heat of the 2016 political campaign to keep secret a past sexual liaison with an adult-film star. The judge said he expects the trial to take about six weeks.

On Feb. 15, former president Donald Trump arrived at a Manhattan courtroom for a hearing determining whether his first criminal trial will begin in March. (Video: The Washington Post)

Defense attorney Todd Blanche pushed back, saying the defense team needs more time to prepare and that a trial will unfairly intervene with the former president’s quest to return to the White House. He also noted that Trump is scheduled for trial in late May in Florida on charges of illegally retaining classified documents and obstructing government attempts to retrieve them. The judge in that case, however, has indicated that she may delay the proceedings to allow more time for the lawyers to review highly classified evidence.

“We have been faced with extremely compressed and expedited schedules in each and every one of those trials,” Blanche said.

In response, Merchan told Blanche — who is representing Trump in multiple cases — that he had “proceeded at your own peril” by taking up the cases and the work demands associated with them.

When Blanche tried to argue further, Merchan snapped, “Stop interrupting me please. … I’ve tried to work with you.”

The discussion in the courtroom soon turned to jury selection, including what questions to ask of potential jurors to ensure that they can judge fairly in a trial that has no historical precedent and in which the defendant is a deeply polarizing public figure.

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There is still a chance the New York trial could end up taking a back seat to a separate federal case against Trump for allegedly conspiring to obstruct the results of the 2020 election. But those charges, filed in Washington, have been hung up for months in an appeals fight over Trump’s claims of presidential immunity. While one appeals court ruled unanimously against him, Trump may still try to make that argument to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could keep that trial on hold for weeks or months more.

Merchan said at the hearing Thursday that he has been conferring with the D.C. trial judge, U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, and that after consulting with her, “we’re moving ahead to jury selection on March 25.”

The charges in the New York business records case are related to Trump’s alleged misclassification of reimbursement payments to Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer. Cohen paid adult-film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 during the 2016 presidential campaign to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump years earlier. (Cohen pleaded guilty in the case and served 15 months in prison, which included home confinement.)

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has accused Trump of reimbursing Cohen for that hush money with payments described as legal fees, when in fact they were a campaign expense meant to keep Trump’s presidential bid untarnished by tawdry allegations of a tryst.

Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records, a felony in New York where there is an intent to defraud that includes intent to “commit another crime or to aid or conceal” a crime. In announcing the charges, Bragg said the goal of Trump’s scheme was to cover up violations of New York election law, which makes it a crime to conspire to illegally promote a candidate. Bragg also said the $130,000 payment exceeded the federal campaign contribution cap.

Trump has pleaded not guilty and complains that these charges — and the three other indictments he faces — are politically motivated efforts to derail his White House candidacy. Besides the indictments in New York, Florida and Washington, he faces state charges in Georgia that he conspired with others to block the 2020 vote results in that state.

The former president has denied all wrongdoing.

He was an attentive but quiet presence in the New York courtroom during the hearing, which began just after 9:30 a.m. and ended shortly after 11 a.m. Sitting at the defense table, the former president frequently had brief, whispered conversations with the lawyers near him, and occasionally with Blanche. But he did not speak out or interrupt, in contrast to his more combative presence during a civil trial in New York last month.

Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom after the hearing, Trump said that he would campaign in the evenings to accommodate the schedule for his criminal trial, which will probably stretch into May. He called the trial a “very unfair situation.”

“They want to keep me nice and busy so I can’t campaign so hard but maybe we won’t have to campaign so hard because the other side is incompetent,” Trump said. “I’m going to have sit here for months on a trial. I think it’s ridiculous, it’s unfair.”

Trump holds a wide lead among Republican candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, and a conviction would not bar him from running or holding office. There are different potential consequences for Trump in each of the cases.

A conviction in the New York case, for example, might or might not lead to a jail sentence. But it would be a conviction that, even if elected, Trump could not expunge or erase because it is a state case, not federal.

At the hearing Thursday morning, the parties said potential jurors might be asked whether they are members of a fringe political group such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers or antifa. The defense also wants to ask whether any prospective jurors have had political bumper stickers on their cars or political signs in their yard, even though all candidates will be from Manhattan, where many people live without cars or front lawns.

Another question could be whether they have read books by Cohen, a key witness in the case, or former prosecutor Mark Pomerantz, who wrote about his time investigating Trump for the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Pomerantz’s book was a major topic of controversy after Bragg decided not to bring a criminal case based on allegedly fraudulent business practices at the Trump Organization. In response, Pomerantz and another veteran prosecutor resigned.

Prosecutors and Trump’s defense team disagreed over how much to press potential jurors about past political donations. One proposed juror question — if they have ever contributed to a campaign or political action committee — was too broad, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass argued to Merchan.

Blanche said that given the nature of the allegations against Trump — whether hush money payments amounted to a campaign expenditure involving a past and current candidate for president — the issue cannot be ignored in screening jurors. The court also “can’t step away from the fact that someone who gave money” for or against Trump in 2016, 2020 or 2024 may be unfairly biased, Blanche said.

Merchan voiced concerns that such questioning could go too far.

“If you’re going to strike everyone who is a Democrat or Republican, you are going to run out” of challenges to potential jurors very quickly, he said.

As the hearing came to an end, Blanche once more tried to convince Merchan to change his mind about a late March trial. “We strenuously object to what is happening in this courtroom,” he said.

“President Trump is going to now spend the next two months working on this trial instead of out on the campaign trail,” Blanche continued, adding that “is something that should not happen in this country.”

Merchan, who grew increasingly impatient with Blanche during the hearing, urged him to get to the point.

“What is your legal argument?” the judge asked.

“That is my legal argument,” Blanche insisted.

“That is not a legal argument,” the judge said as he ended the hearing.

As Blanche departed, a person in the back of the room applauded. It was unclear whether the clapping was in response to Blanche’s remarks or related to something else.

“Quiet in the audience!” a court officer said.

This developing story has been updated.

Marianne LeVine in Washington contributed to this report.

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