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Trump to face first criminal trial next month in ‘hush money’ case

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Donald Trump will next month become the first former US president to face a criminal trial, after a New York state judge declined to dismiss or delay the “hush money” case brought against him over payments allegedly made to the porn actress Stormy Daniels in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Trump, who is the frontrunner to once again be the Republican nominee for president, sat in silence at the hearing on Thursday where Judge Juan Merchan announced that, after consultation with the federal judge overseeing the separate election interference case in Washington, the Manhattan court would begin selecting a jury on March 25, for a trial expected to last six weeks.

Trump’s attempt to dismiss the Manhattan criminal case, which his lawyers had argued was “politically motivated” and unconstitutional, was wholly rejected by Merchan. The judge wrote that the indictment’s claim “that the defendant paid an individual $130,000 to conceal a sexual encounter in an effort to influence the 2016 presidential election and then falsified 34 business records to cover up the pay-off” were “serious allegations”.

Todd Blanche, a lawyer for Trump, said that the decision was a “great injustice” and that scheduling a trial during the presidential primary season amounted to “election interference” by the court.

Blanche further argued that the trial should be delayed because a jury pool would be tainted by the coverage of writer E Jean Carroll’s civil litigation in Manhattan federal court against the former president, in which Trump was found liable for sexual assault and defamation and ordered to pay a total of more than $88mn in damages. Merchan declined to heed the request.

The parties also argued over the questions that would be used to vet potential jurors, including those relating to where individuals get their news or whether they thought the 2020 election was stolen, pointing to the complexity of picking an impartial panel for a trial against a polarising political figure like Trump.

The Manhattan case will be the first of four criminal cases against Trump to reach trial. By the time it begins, the former president is likely to have attained an unassailable lead in the Republican primaries, putting him position to challenge Joe Biden in the November 2024 vote.

The case, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg last April, stems from a years-long investigation into a “catch and kill” scheme allegedly carried out by members of the Trump campaign to identify and silence women who could come forward with claims of illicit affairs with the real estate mogul.

The indictment claims that Trump improperly recorded repayments to his lawyer Michael Cohen for the tens of thousands of dollars he had personally paid Daniels on behalf of the campaign less than two weeks before Americans went to the polls in 2016.

Bragg’s team alleged that while the underlying offences — falsifying business records — are usually less serious misdemeanours in New York state, they should be elevated to more serious felony charges because they violated federal campaign laws.

If convicted, Trump could face financial penalties as well as possible jail time.

A trial in a separate federal case over Trump’s alleged retention of classified documents is scheduled for May, while prosecutors in Georgia have proposed an August trial in their case over the former president’s alleged attempts to subvert the election results in the state.

A hearing was under way on Thursday morning in the Georgia case over whether to disqualify Fani Willis, the district attorney for Fulton County who brought the indictment against Trump and others, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. She has been accused of receiving financial benefits via a relationship with one of the outside attorneys hired to work on the case. Willis has admitted to the relationship but denied any misconduct.

A March trial date for the federal case in which Trump is accused of plotting to overturn the 2020 election results has been put on hold while the charges are challenged by the former president, who has argued that he should be immune from prosecution for acts committed while he was in office. The US Supreme Court is considering whether to allow proceedings to move forward again or leave them on hold while the appeal continues.

The ruling by Merchan on Thursday was the first of two major legal decisions involving Trump that was anticipated this week, with a judge in a neighbouring Manhattan civil court expected to declare whether the former president should be fined as much as $370mn and barred from doing business in his home town for vastly inflating the value of properties in an attempt to secure favourable loans.

Additional reporting by Stefania Palma in Washington

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