Judge sets March 25 date for Trump’s first criminal trial
Former President Donald Trump appears during a court hearing at Manhattan criminal court, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in New York. A New York judge says Trump’s hush-money trial will go ahead as scheduled with jury selection starting on March 25. | Brendan McDermid/Pool Photo via AP

NEW YORK—For the first time in history an ex-president is about to go on trial for a crime.

A New York State Supreme Court judge has ruled Donald Trump’s criminal trial for hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, to keep her story of their affair out of that year’s presidential campaign, will start on March 25.

That trial is on criminal charges of violating New York election laws by disguising an illegal campaign contribution. The money went to Trump’s then-attorney Michael Cohen out of Trump’s personal checking account, reimbursing Cohen for paying Daniels to shut up.

But it really was a business expense and violated legal limits on campaign contributions, too, Judge Juan Merchan’s 30-page ruling said. Trump’s attempt to put a lid on the scandal that threatened his election in 2016 involved falsification of business records of the Trump Organization.

Judge Merchan’s decision jumps the hush money trial ahead of other trials Trump faces, including a top federal trial in D.C. Judge Merchan said he’s been on the phone with the U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan in D.C. to coordinate trial schedules.

What has Trump shaking in his shoes regarding the trial that will begin next month is that even if he is elected he will be unable to pardon himself since it is a state, not a federal crime. Claims by some pundits, that this is the least serious of the numerous trials Trump faces, don’t hold water. The trial that will begin March 25 can derail his entire presidential campaign and it can result in jail time for the ex-president.

The federal criminal case being run by Judge Chutkan involves Trump’s aiding, abetting and virtually ordering the Trumpite mob to march on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in his ultimate try to steal the 2020 election. But that trial, originally scheduled to begin March 4, is stalled, awaiting higher courts’ rulings on Trump’s claim that he has complete immunity from prosecution forever, after having been president.

Judge Merchan pointed out that Trump paid the hush money to Daniels, through his lawyer, to influence the 2016 election, when he opposed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and when his misogynistic actions against women became a campaign issue.

That hush money allegedly broke state law against “falsifying business records, in the first degree,” a felony, Judge Merchan wrote.

In 2016, Trump also paid the National Enquirer $150,000 to kill its story about his affair with former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, Judge Marchan noted. The money eventually went to her. The Enquirer recorded its payment to her as “a promotional expense.”

Trump tried to delay the trial in the Stormy Daniels case by having his lawyers say it would interfere with his current occupation, campaigning for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Judge Merchan rejected that argument, forcing Trump to admit to reporters he’d have to sit in criminal court all day and campaign at night.

Trial in Atlanta too

Another Trump trial, the wide-ranging racketeering and conspiracy case in Fulton County (Atlanta) Court over Trump’s tries to steal Georgia’s electoral votes after the 2020 presidential balloting, has gotten tangled up in demands by lawyers for Trump co-conspirators to throw Atlanta District Attorney Fani Willis out of it.

The lawyers charge she has a conflict of interest because of a romantic relationship, since ended, with the top investigator, Nathan Wade, she hired to help put together evidence for that indictment.

On the witness stand on February 15, Willis strongly denied it, firing back that the lawyers for Trump’s racketeering co-defendants lied about her prior testimony in a sworn affidavit. She said Wade was hired before a relationship developed between the two and that on vacations and at restaurants they shared expenses so as to avoid any claims of financial benefit to her. In any case, the relationship has long since ended, making this a case by Trump lawyers to further delay a major criminal case against the ex-president. Removal of Willis would likely delay the trial until after the election.

The hearing about ejecting Willis—which would be a victory for Trump, has overtones not just of Trump misogyny but of racism, as Willis is African-American. The white Republican majority, filled with Trump loyalists, in the Georgia legislature also has her in its cross-hairs. It’s considering legislation to let legislature-created commissions remove local prosecutors from office.

Willis forcefully rejected the claims of Trump lawyers that she had benefitted financially from the appointment of Nathan Wade to manage the case against Trump and all his co-defendants, accused of trying to steal the election in Georgia. She accused them of spreading lies and declared. “You think I am on trial,” she said, pointing to Trump lawyers and others in the courtroom, “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

Trump is desperate to derail the trial in Georgia because, like the trial in New York, it is a state trial, the results of which he could not reverse if he is elected president.

Besides the trials in the two state courts in New York and Atlanta, and Chutkan’s trial of Trump in D.C., former Oval Office occupant Trump faces other legal action that could keep him off the campaign trail.

On the other hand, Trump uses the hearings as campaign red meat about conspiracy against himself and his legions of loyalists. They eagerly eat it up, taking his statements as gospel.

A second Trump federal criminal trial, in Florida, covers whether he illegally purloined secret documents from the White House and stashed them at his Mar-a-Lago estate, even showing them to unauthorized people, such as an Australian magnate.

One document was a Pentagon war plan against Iran. Another told the magnate how many nuclear missiles each U.S. submarine carries. Federal Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, is slow-walking the documents case.

And Trump still awaits a civil verdict in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan on a case that could really hurt his wallet and his ego: That he committed fraud against New York—and for getting loans for his real estate empire’s purchases—by overvaluing assets for the bankers and then undervaluing them for the state.

He faces a fine of at least $250 million for that fraud. New York Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James is asking for $350 million. Judge Arthur Engoron has already ordered a court-appointed oversee to dismember Trump’s business empire. James also seeks a ban on Trump’s family firm from  doing business in New York for five years and a permanent ban on him from the real estate business.

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John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.