Judge rejects Donald Trump's request to delay hush-money trial until Supreme Court rules on immunity

NEW YORK (AP) — A judge on Wednesday rejected Donald Trump's bid to delay his April 15 hush money criminal trial until the Supreme Court rules on presidential immunity claims he raised in another of his criminal cases — spurning another of the former president's ploys to put off the historic trial. Several more are pending.

Manhattan Judge Juan M. Merchan declared the request untimely, ruling that Trump's lawyers had “myriad opportunities” to raise the immunity issue before they finally did so last month, well after a deadline for pretrial motions had already passed.

The timing of the defense's March 7 filing “raises real questions about the sincerity and actual purpose of the motion,” Merchan wrote in a six-page decision.

Lawyers for Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, had asked Merchan to adjourn the New York trial indefinitely until Trump’s immunity claim in his Washington, D.C., election interference case is resolved.

Trump contends he is immune from prosecution for conduct alleged to involve official acts during his tenure in office. His lawyers have not raised that as a defense in the hush-money case, but they argued that some evidence — including Trump's social media posts about former lawyer Michael Cohen — is from his time as president and should be excluded from the trial because of his immunity protections.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on April 25 — a week-and-a-half after the start of jury selection in the hush-money case.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche declined to comment. The Manhattan district attorney’s office also declined to comment.

Trump first raised the immunity issue in his Washington criminal case, which involves allegations that he worked to overturn the results of his 2020 election loss in the run-up to the violent riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Merchan, in his ruling, drew a distinction between the Washington case — which he referred to as the Federal Insurrection Matter — and the hush-money case he's overseeing.

In Washington, Trump is trying to use presidential immunity to get the charges thrown out on the grounds that he has “absolute immunity from federal criminal liability,” the judge wrote. In the hush-money case, he said, Trump is trying to preclude evidence of what prosecutors said was his “pressure campaign” against Cohen and other witnesses.

The hush money case centers on allegations that Trump falsified his company’s internal records to hide the true nature of payments to his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who helped Trump bury negative stories during his 2016 presidential campaign. Among other things, Cohen paid porn actor Stormy Daniels $130,000 to suppress her claims of an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump years earlier.

Trump pleaded not guilty last year to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. He has denied having a sexual encounter with Daniels, and his lawyers argue the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses and not part of any cover-up.

The hush-money trial, the first of Trump's four criminal cases scheduled to go before a jury, was originally scheduled to begin March 25. Merchan postponed it until April 15 after Trump's lawyers complained about a last-minute document dump from a prior federal investigation into the matter that sent Cohen to prison.

Trump and his lawyers have continued to lobby for even more delays, parlaying gripes about Merchan and concerns about getting a fair trial in heavily Democratic Manhattan into eleventh-hour pleas for more time. It’s the latest iteration of the strategy Trump proclaimed to TV cameras outside a pretrial hearing in February: “We want delays.”

Trump’s lawyers are again urging Merchan to step aside from the case, arguing in a letter to the judge this week that he may have a conflict of interest because of his daughter's work as a Democratic political consultant. Merchan rejected a similar recusal request last year. If he were to exit now, it would throw the trial schedule into disarray, with time needed to assign a new judge and get that person up to speed.

In other recent filings, Trump’s lawyers argued that the trial should be delayed indefinitely until “prejudicial media coverage” of the case dissipates. They also contend that by seeking to make the case about the 2016 election, prosecutors in the liberal borough are “endeavoring to give jurors an opportunity for a referendum” on Trump’s win in that race.

Prosecutors balked at that Wednesday, arguing that publicity about the unprecedented trial of the former president is “unlikely to recede” anytime soon. They blamed Trump's “own incessant rhetoric" for generating significant publicity, adding that “it would be perverse” to reward him with a delay "based on media attention he is actively seeking.”

Prosecutors said the jury selection process — with additional questions designed to weed out biased prospects — will allow both sides to pick an impartial jury.

In his ruling Wednesday, Merchan wrote that Trump's failure to raise the immunity issue sooner strained credulity since the former president's lawyers had previously invoked presidential immunity in a failed bid last year to get the hush-money case moved from state court to federal court.

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein rejected Trump’s claim that allegations in the hush money indictment involved official duties, writing last July, “The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the matter was a purely a personal item of the President — a cover-up of an embarrassing event."

“Hush money paid to an adult film star is not related to a President’s official acts. It does not reflect in any way the color of the President’s official duties," Hellerstein added.

The question of whether a former president is immune from federal prosecution for official acts taken in office is legally untested.

Prosecutors in the Washington case have said no such immunity exists and that, in any event, none of the actions alleged in the indictment count as official acts. The trial judge in Washington and a federal appeals court have both ruled against Trump.

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Associated Press reporter Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

04/03/2024 23:17 -0400

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