NEW YORK — NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump can’t make a federal case out of this one.
U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein on Wednesday rejected the former president’s bid to move his hush-money criminal case from New York state court to federal court, ruling that Trump’s lawyers had failed to meet a high legal bar for changing jurisdiction.
Hellerstein found that the allegations pertained to Trump’s personal life, not presidential duties that would have merited a move to federal court.
“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the matter was a purely a personal item of the President — a cover-up of an embarrassing event,” Hellerstein wrote in a 25-page ruling. “Hush money paid to an adult film star is not related to a President’s official acts. It does not reflect in any way the color of the President’s official duties.”
Hellerstein’s decision sets the stage for Trump to stand trial in state court in Manhattan as early as next spring, overlapping with the 2024 presidential primary season in what could be a frenetic stretch of legal action as the twice-indicted Republican seeks a return to the White House.
Separately, Trump is charged in federal court in Florida with i llegally hoarding classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate and impeding investigators. Prosecutors want that case to go to trial in December.
Trump lawyer Todd Blanche declined comment on Hellerstein’s ruling, which can be appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.
The judge signaled his decision at a hearing on the matter late last month, scoffing at defense claims that the alleged conduct at the root of Trump’s charges — reimbursing his longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen as part of a scheme to bury affair allegations that arose during his first campaign — was within the “color of his office” as president.
Hellerstein said evidence suggested that Cohen, who arranged and made some of the hush-money payments, “was hired privately, not under color of any presidential office or related to it.” There are invoices showing how much Cohen was paid, “but no proof of what he did,” the judge said at the June 27 hearing.
Trump, a Republican, pleaded not guilty April 4 in state court to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to hide reimbursements made to Cohen for his role in paying $130,000 to the porn actor Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an extramarital sexual encounter with Trump years earlier.
Cohen also arranged for the National Enquirer to pay Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story about an alleged affair, which the supermarket tabloid then squelched in a dubious journalism practice known as “catch-and-kill.”
Trump denied having had sexual encounters with either woman. His lawyers argue the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses and not part of any cover-up.
Trump’s lawyers asked the federal court in Manhattan in May to take control of the hush-money case, contending he couldn’t be tried in state court because some of the conduct alleged in his historic indictment occurred in 2017 while he was president, including checks he purportedly wrote while sitting in the Oval Office.
The lawyers, Susan Necheles and Blanche, argued that federal officers including former presidents have the right to be tried in federal court for charges arising from “conduct performed while in office.”
A shift to federal court would’ve meant a broader, more politically diverse jury pool — drawing not only from heavily Democratic Manhattan, where Trump is wildly unpopular, but also from a handful of suburban counties north of the city where he has more political support.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office, which is prosecuting the case, fought to keep it in state court. Matthew Colangelo, a senior counsel to DA Alvin Bragg, argued nothing about the hush-money payments and reimbursements involved Trump’s official duties as president. He also disputed whether the legal definition of “federal officer” applies to a president or only to other members of the government.
Had Hellerstein sided with Trump and moved the case to federal court, the former president’s lawyers could’ve then tried to get the charges dismissed on the grounds that federal officials are immune from criminal prosecution over actions taken as part of their official job duties.
U.S. law allows criminal prosecutions to be moved from state to federal court if they involve actions taken by federal government officials as part of their official duties, among other qualifications. Trump’s request was unprecedented because he’s the first former president ever charged with a crime.
Aside from the legal arguments, Trump had a practical reason for seeking to move the case to federal court: he didn’t think he could get a fair shake in state court.
Trump has claimed New York’s state court system has been “very unfair” to him and that the state court judge presiding over the case, Juan Manuel Merchan, is “a Trump-hating judge” with a family full of “Trump haters.”
Last month, Trump’s lawyers asked Merchan to step aside from the case, arguing that he’s biased in part because his daughter does political consulting work for some of Trump’s Democratic rivals. Merchan has yet to rule on the request. A state ethics advisory panel recently said he shouldn’t have to recuse himself.
Trump’s hush-money trial is scheduled to start in state court on March 25, 2024 in an increasingly crowded legal and political calendar for the Republican frontrunner. In the classified documents case, federal prosecutors have proposed a Dec. 11 trial date while Trump’s lawyers are seeking a delay until after next year’s election.
Meanwhile, two civil lawsuits against Trump are slated to go to trial in the coming months: in October, New York Attorney General Letitia James’ suit alleging he and his company fraudulently misstating the value of assets; and in January, a second trial involving writer E. Jean Carroll’s claim that he defamed her when he denied her allegations that he sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s.
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