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Trump Hush Money Case Will Remain in New York State Court, Judge Rules

Donald J. Trump stands on a stage lined with U.S. flags.
Donald J. Trump’s lawyers sought to move the Manhattan criminal case against him to federal court, but a federal judge said they had not met the relevant legal standard.Credit...John Tully for The New York Times

A judge on Wednesday denied former President Donald J. Trump’s request to move the Manhattan criminal case against him from state to federal court.

The federal judge, Alvin K. Hellerstein, had signaled in a hearing last month that he was predisposed against moving the case brought by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg. Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors have charged Mr. Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, stemming from a hush money payment made to a porn star in 2016.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers had argued the case should be heard in federal court because it related to conduct he engaged in while president.

But in the order Judge Hellerstein issued Wednesday, he echoed his contention at the hearing that Mr. Trump’s lawyers had failed to show that the behavior at issue — reimbursements to Mr. Trump’s former fixer, Michael D. Cohen, for the hush money payment — was somehow related to the office of the presidency.

Judge Hellerstein wrote that the evidence overwhelmingly suggested that the matter involved something personal to 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,” he concluded in the order. “It does not reflect in any way the color of the president’s official duties.”

A lawyer for Mr. Trump, Todd Blanche, declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Bragg said, “We are very pleased with the federal court’s decision and look forward to proceeding in New York State Supreme Court.”

Mr. Trump’s effort to move the case was considered a long shot. Still, the order represents a significant victory for Mr. Bragg — who secured an indictment of the former president in March and whose case against him is scheduled for trial in March 2024 — in part because Judge Hellerstein echoed several arguments made by Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors.

The judge seemed impressed by their evidence, writing that they had strongly supported “their allegations that the money paid to Cohen was reimbursement for a hush money payment.” He also expressed significant skepticism toward a defense Mr. Trump’s lawyers had been expected to mount in arguing that the case should be dismissed.

Mr. Trump, who is once again the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, was also indicted last month in federal court in Miami for mishandling classified documents and obstructing the government’s investigation into his conduct.

On Tuesday, he disclosed that the same federal prosecutors had informed him he was a target in a separate investigation focused on his attempts to retain power after the 2020 election.

Mr. Trump is also under investigation in Georgia, where a grand jury is hearing evidence about election interference. On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected an effort by the former president’s lawyers to halt that investigation.

In the hearing in the Manhattan case last month, Mr. Blanche said the Constitution had necessitated that Mr. Cohen be hired to handle the president’s private affairs when he took the White House. Thus, Mr. Blanche said, any work that Mr. Cohen undertook was relevant to Mr. Trump’s role as president.

But lawyers for the district attorney said Mr. Cohen’s hiring showed the exact opposite. One of the prosecutors, Matthew Colangelo, said the reimbursements to Mr. Cohen represented “personal payments to a personal lawyer” handling Mr. Trump’s affairs. Judge Hellerstein agreed at the hearing, even going so far as to call Mr. Blanche’s argument “far-fetched.”

In order for the falsifying business records charge to be a felony, prosecutors must show the records in question were falsified to help commit or conceal another crime. Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors have named three possible crimes Mr. Trump might have sought to commit or conceal, two of them violations of election laws.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers have argued that the Manhattan prosecutors could not use those election laws as part of the charge in state court, given that the election was federal.

But Judge Hellerstein was unimpressed by those arguments and said they were “without merit.” He wrote that prosecutors did not need to show the laws in question were actually violated — a distinction important to the success of Mr. Bragg’s case.

At the hearing, Susan Hoffinger, the head of investigations at the district attorney’s office, questioned the chief legal officer of the Trump Organization, Alan Garten, about Mr. Cohen’s role.

Under questioning, Mr. Garten acknowledged that the arrangement with Mr. Cohen — with no legal retainer and with payments whose purpose was left a mystery in Mr. Trump’s official ledger — was unusual.

Mr. Garten also said he was not aware of Mr. Cohen having been paid for any other legal work, but that Mr. Cohen had been paid $420,000.

Prosecutors have said that $420,000 was the amount agreed upon between Mr. Cohen and the Trump Organization, most of it to reimburse him for the original hush money payment.

Ben Protess contributed reporting.

Posted on 20 Jul 2023 05:39 link