What’s at stake in Trump’s hush-money criminal case? Judge to rule on key issues as trial date nears

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NEW YORK (AP) — Former President Donald Trump is expected in court Thursday for an important hearing in his New York hush-money criminal case, which now appears increasingly likely to go to trial next month.

Judge Juan Manuel Merchan is set to rule on key pretrial issues and say for certain if the trial will begin as scheduled on March 25. If that happens, the New York case will be the first of Trump’s four criminal indictments to go to trial.

Trump’s lawyers have asked Merchan to dismiss the case entirely. The judge’s recent activities suggest that’s unlikely to happen. In recent weeks, court records show, Merchan has been communicating with defense lawyers and Manhattan prosecutors to plan jury selection for a March trial.

A delay might cause conflicts in Trump’s crowded legal calendar.

Trump, the Republican front-runner in his quest to return to the White House, has not been in court for the New York case since his arraignment last April, though he did appear by video for a hearing in May where the judge warned him against posting evidence to social media or using it to attack witnesses.

Here’s a refresher on where the case stands.

WHAT IS THIS CASE ABOUT?

Trump’s New York case involves an alleged scheme to prevent potentially damaging stories about his personal life from becoming public during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Trump last year with falsifying internal records kept by his company, the Trump Organization, to hide the true nature of payments made to his then-lawyer Michael Cohen, for helping bury stories alleging Trump had extramarital sexual encounters.

The case centers 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 Trump having a child out of wedlock. Trump says he didn’t have any of the alleged sexual encounters.

Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 and arranged for the publisher of the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid to pay McDougal $150,000 in a practice known as “catch-and-kill.”

The Trump Organization then reimbursed Cohen at an amount far more than what he’d spent, prosecutors said. The company logged the payments — delivered in monthly installments and a year-end bonus check — as legal expenses, prosecutors said. Over several months, Cohen said he got $420,000.

The records at issue include general ledger entries, invoices and checks that prosecutors say were falsified.

WHAT IS TRUMP CHARGED WITH?

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records. The charge is a Class E felony in New York, the lowest tier of felony charges in the state. It is punishable by up to four years in prison, though there is no guarantee that a conviction would result in jail time.

Because it is a state case, Trump would not be able to pardon himself if he were to become president again. Presidential pardons only apply to federal crimes.

To convict Trump of a felony, prosecutors must show he not only falsified or caused business records to be entered falsely, which would be a misdemeanor, but that he did so to conceal another crime.

Prosecutors did not specify the other crime in Trump’s indictment, but have since said that evidence shows his actions were meant to conceal campaign finance crimes.

The payments to Daniels and McDougal violated federal restrictions on corporate and individual campaign contributions, prosecutors said, and were meant to “conceal damaging information from the voting public.”

Prosecutors also said that characterizing the payments to Cohen as income rather than a reimbursement amounted to a tax crime, even if it didn’t result in the government getting cheated out of taxes.

Cohen pleaded guilty to a campaign finance crime for his role in the alleged hush-money scheme. The publisher of the National Enquirer signed a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors, who considered the payment to McDougal an illegal corporate contribution to Trump’s campaign.

WHAT DO TRUMP AND HIS LAWYERS SAY?

Trump has denied any wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty. He has repeatedly assailed the hush-money investigation and indictment as “political persecution.” His lawyers argue the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses and not part of any cover-up.

In their request to have the case thrown out, which Merchan is to decide at Thursday’s hearing, Trump’s lawyers accused Bragg, a Democrat, of reviving a so-called “zombie case” to interfere with the Republican front-runner’s chances of retaking the White House.

Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., declined to pursue a case on the same allegations.

“After a five-year meandering, halting, and roving investigation that entailed inexplicable and unconstitutional delay, the District Attorney’s Office filed a discombobulated package of politically motivated charges marred by legal defects,” Trump lawyers Todd Blanche and Susan Necheles argued in their 57-page motion to dismiss the case.

WHAT DOES THE CASE MEAN FOR TRUMP?

The New York indictment, filed on March 30, 2023, made Trump the first former U.S. president ever to face criminal charges. Trump was subsequently indicted in Georgia and Washington, D.C. on charges that he plotted to overturn his 2020 election loss, and in Florida for hoarding classified documents.

Despite the sting to Trump’s reputation and the spectacle of his historic arraignment last April, the New York case is arguably the least perilous of Trump’s four indictments. While a guilty verdict would give him another historic moniker as the first ex-president convicted of a crime, it’s unlikely Trump would be sentenced to significant prison time.

New York court records and newspaper archives show defendants convicted of felony falsifying business records are seldom sentenced to prison for that offense alone. Often, the charge is coupled with more serious felonies like grand larceny.

In contrast, the most serious charges in Trump’s Washington, D.C. and Georgia election cases carry maximum 20-year sentences. Each of the more than 30 willful retention counts in his Florida classified documents case carries a maximum 10-year sentence.

WHAT’S AT STAKE AT THURSDAY’S HEARING?

Merchan is slated to rule on various requests from Trump’s lawyers and prosecutors, including the defense’s motion to dismiss the case entirely.

If Merchan were to grant the motion, the charges would be dropped and there would be no trial. If he denies it, Trump’s lawyers have asked for hearings to explore Constitutional and procedural issues they say “provide alternative basis” for throwing out the charges.

Those issues include claims that Trump was a target of selective prosecution, that the yearslong delay in bringing charges violated his legal rights, and that purported leaks of information about the grand jury investigation created ”political pressure on the prosecutors and grand jurors to indict him.”

Prosecutors, in their reply to the defense’s motion, said the evidence “more than supports” the charges. They contend that Trump is seeking special treatment and attempting to “evade criminal responsibility” because he’s a current presidential candidate.

Prosecutors have accused Trump’s lawyers of ignoring deadlines to turn over evidence and engaging in potential witness intimidation by sending Cohen a subpoena in October that sought a wide array of documents.

WHAT ELSE HAS HAPPENED?

Two big developments: Trump’s lawyers asked Merchan to step aside from the case and they tried to get it moved from state court to federal court. Both failed.

In August, Merchan rejected Trump’s demand that he recuse himself, denying defense claims that he’s biased because he’s given cash to Democrats and his daughter is a Democratic political consultant. The judge did acknowledge making several small donations to Democratic causes during the 2020 campaign, including $15 to Trump’s rival Joe Biden. But, he said he is certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial.”

In July, a federal judge rejected Trump’s bid to move the case to federal court. Trump’s lawyers had argued that he couldn’t be tried in state court because the alleged conduct occurred while he was president. U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein ruled that the hush-money case involved a personal matter, not official presidential duties.

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