By Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The first of four criminal cases against Donald Trump expected to go to trial faces a major test next week, when a New York judge is set to rule on the Republican former U.S. president’s bid that the case be tossed because it is partisan and not covered by state law.
Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, is scheduled to go on trial in state court in Manhattan starting March 25 on charges of falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to a porn star before the 2016 election.
On Feb. 15, Justice Juan Merchan is set to rule on Trump’s motion to dismiss the 34-count indictment. Trump has pleaded not guilty and argued the case should be tossed because it was brought for partisan purposes and because state laws do not apply to federal elections.
Depending on Merchan’s decision, the case could become the first criminal trial Trump faces before his expected Nov. 5 election rematch against President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
A federal judge in Washington last week postponed Trump’s trial on charges of seeking to overturn the 2020 election results. That trial was scheduled to start on March 4.
Trump is seeking to have that case dismissed, arguing he is immune from prosecution over official acts taken while he was president. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Tuesday rejected the argument, but Trump said through a spokesperson that he plans to appeal.
Trial in the Florida federal criminal case accusing Trump of mishandling government documents is set for May but could be postponed. No trial date has been set for his Georgia state case over efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden.
Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
PROSECUTORS ALLEGE A COVER-UP
The Manhattan case centers on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels to prevent her from publicly claiming she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, while he was married. Trump denies the affair.
Cohen in 2018 pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws.
In charging Trump in April 2023, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said his New York-based family real estate company falsely recorded Trump’s reimbursements to Cohen as a legal retainer.
Prosecutors said that violated a state law against falsifying business records to conceal another crime. In this case, they said the payment violated federal campaign finance law and was part of a scheme to promote a candidacy by “unlawful means,” violating state law.
Some critics have said the case is less serious than the others Trump faces because it relates to his private life before taking office, rather than actions taken as president affecting elections or national security.
In a radio interview last December, Bragg framed the case in terms of election integrity.
“It’s about conspiring to corrupt a presidential election and then lying in New York business records to cover it up – that’s the heart of the case,” Bragg said in an interview on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.”
TRUMP CLAIMS ‘SELECTIVE PROSECUTION’
In seeking dismissal, Trump’s lawyers wrote that he had been targeted for “selective prosecution” by Bragg, a Democrat. Bragg’s office said anyone else who behaved similarly would have been prosecuted, pointing to Cohen’s guilty plea.
Trump’s lawyers also argued state prosecutors cannot use Trump’s alleged concealment of federal election law violations to justify the false records charges, and that state election law did not apply to federal candidates.
Bragg’s office said the business records falsification law was not restricted to cases involving state-level crimes, and that state election law applies to federal campaigns.
One judge has already ruled against Trump on similar grounds.
In denying Trump’s bid to move the case to federal court last year, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein said the New York election law did not distinguish between state and federal elections, and that the falsification of business records law did not exempt federal elections.
Anna Cominsky, a New York Law School professor, said prosecutors appeared to have a stronger argument because the business records law was not limited to cover-ups of state crimes.
“It’s very broad,” Cominsky said. “It’s not saying the prosecutor has to prove that other crime was committed, but rather just that there was this intent.”
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Jonathan Oatis)