Klasfeld’s reporting is part of Just Security’s Trump Trials Clearinghouse

The criminal case against former President Donald Trump for allegedly falsifying business records to smother a scandal during the 2016 presidential election remains on course for a March trial, as a Manhattan judge on Thursday refused to dismiss his 34-count felony indictment.

Minutes after proceedings began, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan announced that he had decided to deny Trump’s motion to dismiss and would resume jury selection as scheduled on March 25. 

Merchan signaled that he expected the trial to last six weeks.

Spanning a little more than 90 minutes, Thursday morning’s hearing followed the announcement of Trump’s legal defeat with wrangling over preparations for trial next month, including jury selection and the remainder of pre-trial discovery. Trump’s lead attorney Todd Blanche repeatedly complained about the judge’s adherence to the trial schedule as his client tries to notch the Republican nomination. Blanche said the conflict was “something that should not happen in this country.”

The argument appeared to wear on the judge’s patience.

“Okay, what’s your legal argument?” Merchan prodded, toward the end of the hearing. 

“That’s not a legal argument,” he added later. 

At other moments in the hearing, Merchan sharply directed Blanche not to interrupt him and ordered him to be seated. The judge did not describe the particulars of his ruling from the bench, instead releasing a 30-page decision and order broadly advancing Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s case.

The first of four indictments brought against the former president, Bragg’s charges against Trump relate to the former president’s alleged role in disguising a $130,000 payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election. In 2018, Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to violating federal election law through that hush-money transfer, which he masked through a complicated system involving a home equity loan funneled through a shell company to Daniels’ lawyer.

Before Cohen’s sentencing, federal prosecutors found that Cohen made those payments “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump, but the Department of Justice did not indict the former president in connection with that scheme. 

Trump had complained about the more than half-decade interval between Cohen’s prosecution and his own charges, seeking dismissal on the grounds of “pre-indictment delay.” 

In his ruling, Merchan said he “agreed” with the prosecution that the pause was justified by the “complex investigation.” 

“Further, while it is true that the charges involve the lowest level felony and no one suffered physical harm, it can hardly be said that the allegations are not severe,” the judge noted, summarizing allegations that Trump engaged in “an effort to influence the 2016 Presidential election” in a scheme to “cover up” his payoff. 

“In this Court’s view, those are serious allegations,” Merchan added.

In his New York case, Trump stands accused of falsifying business records to cover up reimbursing Cohen to the tune of $420,000, grossed up to account for interest on the loan and supposed “tech” services. Manhattan prosecutors allege Trump paid out the reimbursements in monthly installments of $35,000, leading to dozens of charges. While the alleged deceptions involving the documents themselves are misdemeanors,  they can become felonies if performed in the commission of other offenses.

Prosecutors argued that Trump deceived voters, in violation of state and federal election law, by avoiding negative press on the cusp of the 2016 election — and misled New York tax authorities about the nature of Cohen’s payments.

Merchan allowed prosecutors to advance three of four theories of the case, accusing Trump of violating federal election law, state election law, and the tax fraud statute.

The Judge ruled against the district attorney on one theory of the case, potentially limiting prosecutors from telling jurors about a separate hush-money payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Under that theory, prosecutors would have argued that Trump intended to falsify business records to cover up a plan by the National Enquirer’s parent company America Media Incorporated (AMI) to purchase McDougal’s story and refuse to print it, in what has been called a “catch-and-kill” scheme. (In 2018, AMI entered into a non-prosecution agreement allowing the company to avoid company finance charges.)  The judge indicated prosecutors might still be able to include some of the alleged facts involving the AMI arrangement under other theories, including the intent to violate election laws.

 In September, Trump’s attorneys, Todd Blanche and Susan Necheles, previewed their defense in a motion seeking the case’s dismissal, ridiculing the indictment as a “zombie case” revived to selectively prosecute their client.

In his various civil and criminal cases, Trump has claimed to be the target of selective prosecution, in a refrain that has boosted fundraising from his supporters — but has not yet prevailed in any court. Two levels of New York courts rejected Trump’s claims that New York Attorney General Letitia James brought the civil fraud case against him, his adult children, and his companies to fulfill a campaign promise. 

Trump’s similar claim against Bragg fared no better, and it relied heavily on a book published by the DA’s former deputy Mark Pomerantz, who resigned in a letter complaining about a decision not to prosecute the former president for financial offenses.

This, Trump’s counsel argued, built up pressure for the Democratic DA to bring a different case, but the judge found that the former president’s arguments “strain credulity.”

“The Defendant has not overcome the presumption that the People’s prosecution of this matter was undertaken in good faith and without discrimination,” Merchan’s ruling stated.

Trump and the district attorney disputed the questions to be included on the jury questionnaire, with the former president’s lawyers attempting to elicit detailed information about the candidate’s political opinions and ties. The proposed questions scrutinize the potential jurors’ media consumption and involvement in the “QAnon movement, Proud Boys, antifa, and any other anarchist groups.” 

Such questions, one of the prosecutors noted, helped weed out juror bias in E. Jean Carroll’s second defamation trial against Trump, which resulted in a $88.3 million judgment.

The judge did not yet rule on or release those questions, before the hearing adjourned.

Though his attorneys’ arguments broadly failed in court, Trump came ahead with one person in the courtroom gallery, who started clapping before security officers silenced the spectator. An otherwise expressionless Trump was spotted cracking a smile at that outburst.

Read the judge’s ruling here.

(Editor’s note: Readers may be interested in Just Security’s Survey of Past New York Felony Prosecutions for Falsifying Business Records.)

Former US President Donald Trump, with his lawyer Todd Blanche (2nd R), speaks to the press as he arrives at Manhattan Criminal Court for a hearing in his case on February 15, 2024 (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)