Judge delays Trump’s hush-money criminal trial until mid-April, citing last-minute evidence dump

Judge Juan Merchan poses for a picture in his chambers in New York, Thursday, March 14, 2024. Merchan could become the first judge ever to oversee a former U.S. president’s criminal trial. He's presiding over Donald Trump’s hush money case in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Judge Juan Merchan poses for a picture in his chambers in New York, Thursday, March 14, 2024. Merchan could become the first judge ever to oversee a former U.S. president’s criminal trial. He’s presiding over Donald Trump’s hush money case in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s New York hush-money criminal trial was delayed Friday until at least mid-April as the judge seeks answers about a last-minute evidence dump that the former president’s lawyers said has hampered their ability to prepare their defense.

Manhattan Judge Juan Manuel Merchan agreed to a 30-day delay starting Friday and scheduled a hearing for March 25 after Trump’s lawyers complained that they only recently started receiving more than 100,000 pages of documents from a previous federal investigation into the matter.

The trial had been scheduled to start on March 25. The delay means the trial would start no earlier than April 15. Prosecutors had said they wouldn’t object to a short delay. Trump’s lawyers have requested a three-month delay as well as asking for the case to be thrown out.

In a statement Friday, the Trump campaign continued to argue that the case “has no basis in law or fact, and should be dismissed.”

In a letter Friday, Merchan told Manhattan prosecutors and Trump’s defense team that he wanted to assess “who, if anyone, is at fault for the late production of the documents,” whether it hurt either side and whether any sanctions are warranted.

The judge demanded a timeline of events detailing when the documents were requested and when they were turned over. He also wants all correspondence between the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which is prosecuting Trump, and the U.S. attorney’s office, which previously investigated the matter in 2018.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office declined comment. Trump lawyer Todd Blanche also declined comment.

Merchan’s decision upended what had been on track to be the first of Trump’s four criminal indictments to go to trial. Trump, the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee, has fought to delay all of his criminal cases, arguing that he shouldn’t be forced into a courtroom while he should be on the campaign trial.

Trump’s lawyers raised the evidence issue last week, though their court filing wasn’t made public until Thursday. In their motion, they made multiple requests. Among them, they asked for a 90-day delay, which would push the start of the trial into the early summer; that certain witness testimony be precluded; and that Trump’s charges be dismissed.

Prosecutors said they were ready to proceed to trial on March 25, but were OK with a 30-day adjournment “in an abundance of caution and to ensure that defendant has sufficient time to review the new materials.”

“Trial on this matter is adjourned for 30 days from the date of this letter on consent of the People,” Merchan wrote, referring to the prosecution. “The Court will set the new trial date, if necessary, when it rules on Defendant’s motion following the hearing.”

Merchan said his prior directive that the parties, including Trump, “not engage or otherwise enter into any commitment pending completion of this trial” remains in effect.

Trump’s lawyers said they have received tens of thousands of pages of evidence in the last two weeks from the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which investigated the hush money arrangement while Trump was president.

The evidence includes records about former Trump lawyer-turned-prosecution witness Michael Cohen that are “exculpatory and favorable to the defense,” Trump’s lawyers said. Prosecutors said most of the newly turned over material is “largely irrelevant to the subject matter of this case,” though some records are pertinent.

The hush money case centers on allegations that Trump falsified his company’s records to hide the true nature of payments to Cohen, who paid porn actor Stormy Daniels $130,000 during the 2016 presidential campaign to suppress her claims of an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump years earlier.

Trump pleaded not guilty last year to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records and has denied having a sexual encounter with Daniels. His lawyers argue the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses and were not part of any cover-up.

Prosecutors contend Trump’s lawyers caused the evidence problem by waiting until Jan. 18 — a mere nine weeks before the scheduled start of jury selection — to subpoena the U.S. attorney’s office for the full case file.

District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office said it requested the full file last year but the U.S. attorney’s office only turned over a subset of records. Trump’s lawyers received that material last June and had ample time to seek additional evidence from the federal probe, the district attorney’s office said.

Short trial delays because of issues with evidence aren’t unusual, but any delay in a case involving Trump would be significant, with trial dates in his other criminal cases up in the air and Election Day less than eight months away.

The defense has also sought to delay the trial until after the Supreme Court rules on Trump’s presidential immunity claims, which his lawyers say could apply to some of the allegations and evidence in the hush money case. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments April 25.

Trump has repeatedly sought to postpone his criminal trials while he campaigns to retake the White House.

“We want delays,” Trump told reporters as he headed into a Feb. 15 hearing in New York. “Obviously I’m running for election. How can you run for election if you’re sitting in a courthouse in Manhattan all day long?”

AP Politics

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