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Judge orders delay in Trump hush money trial until at least mid-April

NEW YORK — The judge overseeing the expected first criminal trial of Donald Trump, which was due to begin this month, has pushed it back until at least mid-April, saying that lawyers need more time to review a fresh set of potential evidence and that he wants to hear arguments about whether the material was handled properly.

The trial had been scheduled to start March 25 and would probably be the first criminal trial of a former president in U.S. history, given that Trump’s other criminal cases are mired in separate delays. But the timing was thrown into doubt this week as Trump’s lawyers accused prosecutors of dealing unfairly with them in the handling of more than 100,000 pages of material that could be evidence in the case.

The surprise scheduling twist is an outgrowth of the strange legal path that led to Trump being indicted last year on state charges of business records fraud for hush money paid made to an adult-film actress, a journey that started in the office of federal prosecutors in downtown Manhattan but ended up with state-level prosecutors a few blocks away.

The federal prosecutors wrested a guilty plea out of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen but chose not to pursue a criminal case against the former president. Now, records from that old case have come back to haunt the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who brought an indictment against Trump last year related to the hush money payments.

On Friday, New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan sent a letter to the district attorney’s office and Trump’s lawyers notifying them that instead of starting jury selection March 25, as planned, he would push the trial back 30 days from the date of his letter.

The judge had scheduled a pretrial hearing March 25 to discuss the dispute over evidence and a motion from Trump’s lawyers seeking to throw out the case or, short of that, bar testimony from key witnesses, including Cohen and the adult-film actress, Stormy Daniels.

“The court will set the new trial date, if necessary, when it rules on Defendant’s motion following the hearing,” Merchan wrote.

Also Friday, Bragg said he would soon receive about 15,000 new pages of documents from the U.S. attorney’s office — Bragg’s federal counterparts — on top of the 100,000 pages he got earlier.

Those federal prosecutors previously investigated much of the same conduct that Bragg’s office focused on to charge Trump. He is accused of scheming to cover up his payment of hush money in 2016 to hide from the public an alleged sexual liaison years earlier with Daniels. The former president, who is again running for the White House and has clinched the Republican nomination, has pleaded not guilty in the case and denies an affair with Daniels.

Lawyers for Trump, who sought a 90-day delay in the trial, have argued that evidence from the federal investigation is critical to being able to defend their client from the state charges. They also have accused prosecutors of deliberately withholding reams of such documents until about two weeks before the scheduled trial start date.

The imbroglio — a byproduct of the difference of legal opinions between federal and state prosecutors about a chain of events dating back to 2016 — could further delay a criminal case that is already eight years in the making.

The U.S. attorney’s office “should be permitted to address the extraordinarily serious claim” by the Manhattan district attorney that federal prosecutors “wrongfully withheld responsive materials on a previous occasion,” Trump’s lawyers wrote in their letter to the judge. It’s unclear if the judge will ask to hear from federal prosecutors.

The three other criminal cases against Trump all face a variety of delays: in D.C., where he is charged with conspiring to block the 2020 election results, the court is waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on Trump’s claims of presidential immunity; In Florida, where he is charged with mishandling classified documents and obstructing justice, the judge is weighing a host of complex legal issues, many of them revolving around national security sensitivities; and in Georgia, state prosecutors have been embroiled in a two-month legal drama over a personal relationship that forced one of the key lawyers off the case Friday.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him and accused prosecutors of pursuing him for political reasons as he runs for president.

When he was seeking the White House in 2016, Trump allegedly used Cohen to pay Daniels $130,000 for her silence about a sexual liaison years earlier. The U.S. attorney’s office investigated that payment as a potential campaign finance violation and probed Michael Cohen’s finances more broadly. In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including tax evasion, making an illegal campaign donation, lying to a bank and lying to Congress.

Cohen’s guilty plea made clear that he arranged the payment to Daniels at the behest of Trump, but federal prosecutors concluded the evidence was not strong enough to charge Trump for several reasons — chief among them, their concerns about Cohen’s credibility as a trial witness, according to people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

The U.S. attorney’s office “was never going to bring a case in which Michael Cohen was a government witness,” one person familiar with the matter said.

Part of the federal officials’ concern was that even as Cohen agreed to plead guilty, they suspected he was being dishonest with them and refusing to divulge everything he knew about alleged criminal conduct, people familiar with the matter said.

There were also more pragmatic reasons to avoid filing federal charges against Trump, these people said. For one thing, it has long been Justice Department precedent that a sitting president cannot be accused of a crime, let alone charged, and Trump was in office while much of the federal investigation was underway. In addition, a trial defeat in a past campaign finance case weighed heavily on federal officials’ minds.

In 2012, a jury deadlocked on most of the federal charges against former Democratic senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) over nearly $1 million his donors paid to support his mistress during the 2008 presidential campaign. Prosecutors dropped the case weeks after the hung jury.

When weighing charges against Trump, federal prosecutors also worried that what he allegedly did in terms of the hush money reimbursements might not be a crime under a careful reading of federal campaign finance laws, the people familiar with the matter said.

Ultimately, prosecutors decided it did not make sense to file federal criminal charges against a former president on an issue that was a close call legally and depended on a star witness with a terrible track record, these people said.

Years later, the state-level Manhattan district attorney’s office, first under Cyrus Vance and later Bragg, explored whether they could prove violations of state law for the hush money payments. Last March, after Bragg filed the first indictment in U.S. history of a former president, lawyers for Trump began demanding access to the federal investigative file as well as the state case, suspecting that the U.S. attorney’s office held key evidence that could help Trump by further eroding Cohen’s credibility.

Trump’s lawyers were using a strategy deployed in all of his criminal cases — making far-reaching demands for discovery, or potential trial evidence, that could be beneficial in a number of different ways. Extensive hunts for discovery material could bog down prosecutors’ time and resources, or find information showing unfairness toward their client, or simply cause major delays to the trial process.

This week, that strategy seemed to pay off for the defense lawyers, as the Manhattan district attorney’s office said it was receiving three large tranches of documents from the U.S. attorney’s office.

The first tranche, Bragg’s office said in a court filing, consisted of roughly 73,000 pages of records, “the vast majority of which are irrelevant to the subject matter of this case.”

The second set of papers, totaling some 31,000 pages, was described somewhat more ominously by Bragg in his filings. “Those records appear to contain materials related to the subject matter of this case, including materials that the People requested from the [U.S. Attorney] more than a year ago and that the [U.S. Attorney] previously declined to provide,” Bragg wrote.

The third batch of some 15,000 pages delivered Friday was more like the first, prosecutors said, and not particularly relevant to the hush money case.

Trump’s lawyers seized on the varying descriptions of the material to suggest that the district attorney’s office was mischaracterizing both the material and the seriousness of the dispute.

Noting that Bragg has claimed in his court filing that his office had requested some of the material from the U.S. attorney more than a year ago and been denied, Trump’s lawyers suggested that claim may not be true.

“We expect there will be factual disputes about the timing and scope of any such requests, which will require a response” from the U.S. attorney’s office, Trump lawyers Todd Blanche and Susan Necheles wrote Friday. The judge, the lawyers said, will have to make “credibility determinations.”

Barrett reported from Washington.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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