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

AP |
Mar 16, 2024 06:22 AM IST

Manhattan Judge Juan Manuel Merchan agreed to a 30-day delay starting Friday and set a hearing for March 25 to decide whether the case should be dismissed

Donald Trump’s 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.

Former US President Donald Trump (AFP)

Manhattan Judge Juan Manuel Merchan agreed to a 30-day delay starting Friday and set a hearing for March 25 to decide whether prosecutors should face sanctions or the case should be dismissed 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.

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The New York trial had been scheduled to start on March 25. The delay means the trial would start no earlier than April 15.

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 said he also want 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.

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 wanted a 90-day delay, which would've pushed the start of the trial into the early summer, and asked Merchan to dismiss the case entirely. Prosecutors said they 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.”

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?”

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