“Powerful evidence”: Legal experts say Trump’s NY criminal trial could “completely upend” election

A New York judge on Thursday set a trial date for next month in former President Donald Trump’s case centered on hush-money payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign.

This sets the stage for the first-ever prosecution of a former American president after Judge Juan Merchan rejected Trump’s motion to have the 34 felony counts pending against him dismissed.

Merchan affirmed the jury selection in the trial will begin on March 25 and said he expects the trial to last six weeks.

Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche argued that his client’s constitutional rights were being violated since he was given insufficient time to prepare for the trial. 

“It is completely election interference to say you are going to sit in this courtroom in Manhattan when there is no reason for it,” Blanche said, adding “it’s truly an impossible position for anyone to be in.”

The Manhattan case will be the first of four criminal cases against Trump to go before a jury. The former president is facing three additional prosecutions and a civil fraud lawsuit that may result in significant financial penalties, potentially amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

His cases in Georgia, Florida and Washington, D.C. have all encountered delays or faced the potential risk of disruption. The ex-president’s lawyers have largely argued that the court should consider the context of the election campaign – a similar tactic Blanche tried to employ in the Manhattan courtroom. 

“As the court is aware, we are in the middle of primary season,” Blanche said.

But Merchan said that March 25 was a “date certain,” adding: “You don’t have a trial date in Georgia. You don’t have a trial date in Florida.”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Trump with falsifying business records to hide a series of payments made to his former “fixer” and lawyer Michael Cohen. The alleged payments were reimbursements for a hush money payment to Daniels to keep her from going public with her affair allegations during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.

But Trump’s legal team has denied that they were part of a cover-up, instead arguing that he was reimbursing Cohen for legal expenses.

While it is difficult to assess the “strength” of this case without hearing the witness testimony first, Cohen, who is a convicted perjurer, will be subject to “vigorous cross-examination,” former U.S. Attorney Barb McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor, told Salon. But if the case is largely built on documents, then Cohen’s “baggage” may not matter all that much. 

“Documents are powerful evidence because documents don’t lie and documents don’t forget,” McQuade said. 

It’s not a very complicated case, Gregory Germain, Syracuse University law professor, told Salon. They have “strong evidence” that the Trump Organization attempted to “disguise” hush payments to Daniels as attorney fees to Cohen through Cohen’s own testimony and records.  

“Whether covering up a personal matter constitutes felony criminal conduct is a larger question of law that will likely be resolved by the appellate courts,” Germain said. 

The ex-president’s legal challenges have escalated in the months following the previous court hearing, with his schedule becoming increasingly occupied by various court dates.

A judge in Georgia on Thursday is also hearing testimony to determine whether District Attorney Fani Willis, who brought election interference charges against Trump, should be removed from the case.

Trump’s lawyers have alleged that Willis is engaged in an improper “romantic relationship” with one of the lead prosecutors handling the case and was “profiting significantly from this prosecution at the expense of the taxpayers.”

Judge Scott McAfee, who is overseeing the case, said a financial conflict of interest, or the appearance of one, could be grounds to disqualify the prosecutors. 

The case by Bragg has emerged as a “bellwether” for all the criminal cases against Trump, V. James DeSimone, a California civil rights attorney, told Salon. Bragg was the first prosecutor to charge Trump and now Merchan has taken a strong stand by saying even a presidential campaign won’t derail this case, and nor should it. 

“It’s a sign that other judges will hold firm and uphold the law when the same push to delay the trial is brought to their courts,” DeSimone said.

The federal election interference case in Washington, which involves Trump’s attempts to reverse Joe Biden’s victory, remains on hold as the former president’s lawyers appealed a circuit court ruling that found he has no immunity for alleged crimes committed as president.

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The trial was originally scheduled for March 4, but that date is now on hold as Trump appeals a rejected presidential immunity claim to the High Court. The Supreme Court could act as soon as this week.

The public perception is “extremely divided,” with Trump supporters focusing on the political motivations behind the prosecutions, and Trump opponents supporting “full-throated prosecutions” and hoping to eliminate him from the ballot, Germain said. 

The outcome of the cases is only going to make those divisions “more pronounced,” he continued. These divisions are going to cause “more problems” to the political system than they solve, by “further polarizing the country.”

“Even if Trump only receives a one-year sentence in this trial after a conviction, it will completely upend the 2024 election,” DeSimone said. “Trump could be sitting in a prison cell come election day. And the further this case progresses, the more that possibility will become evident to voters and the more his supporters will have to think twice about Trump.”

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