Trump has “failed to show the conduct charged by the indictment is for, or relating to, any act performed by or for the president”, US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein said in his ruling Wednesday.
During an almost three-hour hearing last month, Hellerstein expressed skepticism over Trump’s argument that he allegedly made payments to a porn star in his capacity as president. Trump moved the case to federal court in early May, arguing the case belonged there because the alleged crimes occurred while he was in office and immune from prosecution. Federal court might have proved a more favorable setting for his defense.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg alleges that during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump directed his then-lawyer Michael Cohen to pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an alleged sexual encounter that he has denied. Prosecutors say Trump later reimbursed Cohen, claiming the payments were for legitimate legal work. In an indictment in March, Trump was charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records.
“We are very pleased with the federal court’s decision and look forward to proceeding in New York State Supreme Court,” a spokesperson for Bragg said in a statement.
Trump’s lawyers contended that the falsification charges should be considered violations of US election law, preempting the state’s authority to bring the case. Trump also argued he had “protective jurisdiction” as president, because Bragg’s indictment was “politically motivated.”
Hellerstein said Trump had failed to provide evidence to support his claim that the payments were part of his official duties as president. Not every act on behalf of a federal officer can be construed as under their official duties, the judge said.
“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the matter was a purely a personal item of the President — a cover-up of an embarrassing event,” Hellerstein ruled. “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.”
The ruling by Hellerstein, appointed to the Bench in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, is another headache for Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination for 2024. His lawyers have sought to remove New York State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan from the case, arguing he is biased against their client. They have criticised his rulings in a trial against the Trump Organization last year in which the firm was convicted.
Merchan has scheduled the hush money trial to begin March 25.
“The Democrats have weaponized our great judicial system and are using it to damage their political opposition — a disgraceful abuse of the public trust,” the Trump campaign said in an emailed statement. “They’re throwing everything they can at President Trump to prevent his reelection, because deep down, they know he’s going to win. This case belongs in a federal court and we will continue to pursue all legal avenues to move it there.”
Why the Battle?
Trump may have sought to move the case out of state court to gain a couple of tactical advantages, including removing Merchan from the picture, said Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School.
One federal court advantage is where jurors are drawn from. Federal juries in Manhattan include residents of New York, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland and Dutchess counties as well as from three upstate counties that Trump won in 2020 — Putnam, Orange and Sullivan. A state case would be heard by a jury made up solely of Manhattan residents, where President Joe Biden won 84.5% of the vote.
Trump also may have been hoping a move to federal court would boost his chances in arguing he was immune from prosecution as a former president, Richman said.
“But the default explanation is just to delay and waste prosecutorial resources,” he said.
Bragg’s case was the first time a current or former president had ever been indicted. Trump was indicted again in June, in federal court in Florida, for allegedly mishandling classified government documents. He has pleaded not guilty in the two cases and maintains that both, along with other cases and investigations he faces, are part of a broader Democratic effort to derail his campaign.
Trump said Tuesday he’s been notified that he is a target in the Justice Department’s investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, signalling that he is likely to be charged with federal crimes.
While the Florida documents case is probably the most serious threat facing Trump, other matters add to his legal exposure. Hellerstein’s ruling follows a blow the US Justice Department dealt Trump on July 11 by reversing course after initially seeking to replace him as the defendant in writer E Jean Carroll’s remaining defamation case, which would have ended that litigation.
In arguing that the hush money prosecution belonged in federal court, Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche cited Bragg’s decision “to wrongfully prosecute” his client “for lawful conduct that took place while the president was in office”. He said the alleged payments occurred from February to December 2017 while Trump was acting within his authority as president.
Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo argued the payments had nothing to do with Trump’s duties.
“Writing personal checks, even if he did it in the Oval Office, is not an official act,” he said.
During the June 27 hearing, the judge said the case might be best handled in the court in which it was brought.
“There is no reason to believe an equal measure of justice couldn’t be rendered by the state court,” he said.
The case is New York v Donald Trump, 23-cv-3773, US District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).