N.Y. judge sets firm April 15 trial date in Trump’s historic hush money case

NEW YORK — Donald Trump will begin his first criminal trial on April 15, a judge ruled Monday, at the end of a contentious hearing in which he repeatedly bludgeoned the former president’s legal team for claims of prosecutorial misconduct that the judge said were unfounded.

New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan rejected Trump’s assertion that the Manhattan district attorney’s office acted improperly with regard to newly available evidence. He also insisted the trial over reimbursement of an alleged hush money payment was back on track after a delay he imposed earlier this month.

Yet even as the judge signaled there was no stopping the case from moving forward on the new schedule, Trump’s lawyers said they aimed to file at least one additional motion, this time over pretrial publicity, that they hoped might push the trial back. The judge sounded very skeptical of such a motion.

The case had been set to go to trial in late March until defense lawyers said prosecutors had wrongfully withheld, until the final days of trial preparation, some 100,000 pages of potential evidence — records from a past federal investigation into Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer and a key prosecution witness.

Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court in 2018 to campaign finance violations for acting on Trump’s direction in 2016 to pay an adult film actress $130,000 for her silence about an alleged sexual tryst with Trump years earlier. Trump is charged with falsifying business records related to his repayment of Cohen, classifying them as a legal rather than a campaign expense. It is one of four criminal trials Trump faces as he again runs for president, and the only one with a firm start date — albeit in the middle of the 2024 campaign.

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The issue of the new potential evidence was serious enough that even Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) agreed on the need for an initial delay to review the material. On March 15, Merchan complied, saying the trial would not start before mid-April. He then scheduled Monday’s hearing to discuss the matter.

But after reading Bragg’s court filings explaining the issue, Merchan concluded the district attorney “is not at fault for the late production of documents from the U.S. attorney’s office.”

Trump, seated at the defense table, grimaced and shook his head as the judge ruled against him.

Throughout the hearing, the judge expressed deep skepticism toward the former president’s legal claims — asking defense lawyer Todd Blanche pointed questions and then cutting short answers that he found evasive or misleading.

The judge chastised Blanche for what he called “a pattern where I read certain information, I hear certain information and then I hear your interpretation of that, and it’s really different from my interpretation. And this has been frankly going on for months.”

Far from prosecutorial misconduct involving potential evidence, Merchan said, prosecutors were doing their best to be careful and thorough with their handling of that material.

The Manhattan district attorney “went so far above and beyond what they’re required to do, it’s really odd that we’re even here and that we have taken this time,” Merchan said.

Bragg’s team provided Trump’s team with some of the federal records about its investigation of Cohen last summer and has said that it did not have anything additional in its possession. Months later, Trump’s lawyers subpoenaed the federal prosecutor’s office and got a much broader set of records, which Trump’s side now insists are important to the case.

Matthew Colangelo, one of the lead prosecutors under Bragg, told Merchan that no more than 300 of those documents were relevant to the pending trial. With that assurance, Merchan decided that Trump’s rights would not be violated if the trial began in three weeks.

“The defendant will not suffer any prejudice as a result of the document production because the defendant has been given a reasonable amount of time to prepare and respond to the material,” the judge said.

At one point, Merchan questioned why someone with Blanche’s previous experience as a federal prosecutor didn’t pursue the potential evidence more aggressively. He demanded that the lawyer, who used to work in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office, explain why he didn’t subpoena the Cohen records from that office last year, saying Blanche should have realized then that the district attorney’s document production was incomplete.

Trump’s legal team instead began demanding the voluminous federal records in January, two months before the original March 25 scheduled trial start.

“So you know that the defense has the same ability as the prosecution to obtain these documents. … Why did you wait [until] two months before trial? Why didn’t you do it in June or July?” Merchan said.

He also chastised Blanche for failing to provide any case law showing Bragg’s office had a duty to get and share the federal case file.

“You’re literally accusing the Manhattan DA’s office and the people involved in this case of engaging in prosecutorial misconduct and of trying to make me complicit in it,” Merchan said. “And you don’t have a single [case law citation] to support that position.”

During a 45-minute break, Trump learned that an appeals court had sided in his favor in a separate legal matter, steeply reducing the size of the bond he was expected to post in a civil business fraud case he lost to New York Attorney General Letitia James (D).

Walking back into the courtroom from the break, Trump smiled and gave a thumbs-up to a member of the gallery.

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