Donald Trump’s legal team and Manhattan state prosecutors squared off in a New York City courtroom Tuesday over the ex-president’s push to move his hush money criminal case into federal court. It didn’t go well for Trump.
Both sides effectively wrangled over whether Trump’s alleged handling of an October 2016 payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels was done in a personal capacity or somehow related to his role as president.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s then consigliere-cum-bagman, handled the $130,000 payout. Trump then repaid Cohen $420,000 through a series of payments starting in 2017 — when he was in the Oval Office, prosecutors said. Trump’s lawyers have contended that federal officers can move criminal cases to federal court when they’re “charged for conduct “for or relating to any act under color of federal office arising under color of his office.”
Manhattan prosecutors charged Trump with more than 30 first-degree felony counts involving allegedly falsified business records — making him the first former U.S. president to face criminal charges — involving the payments to Cohen. He pleaded not guilty.
The March indictment alleged that Trump engaged in dozens of “false” financial transactions “with intent to defraud and intent to commit another crime and aid and conceal the commission thereof.” The statement of facts in this case contended that Trump “repeatedly and fraudulently” falsified business records “to conceal criminal conduct that hid damaging information from the voting public during the 2016 presidential election.”
One of the main components of this “scheme,” the doc stated, was his instruction that “an adult film actress [be] covertly paid $130,000 … shortly before the election to prevent her from publicizing a sexual encounter with the Defendant.”
The D.A.’s office said that this payment — carried out by Cohen — was to boost Trump’s presidential run, but wasn’t reported as a campaign contribution on disclosure docs. So, prosecutors are also accusing him of violating election laws, though he’s not charged with that.
Trump has good reason to want this case in federal court rather than state. If Trump were convicted in federal court, the next president could pardon him. Moreover, the jury pool for a federal case extends far beyond blue-leaning Manhattan — northward into counties with some strongly conservative pockets.
Trump’s lead attorney during this afternoon’s hearing, Todd Blanche, said that Cohen left the Trump organization to become Trump’s personal lawyer when his ex-boss was stepping back from business holdings. Blanche contended that Cohen was effectively hired as a firewall between Trump and his companies, so there wouldn’t be any possible conflict of interest between his business and governmental work.
That role meant that Cohen, albeit a private lawyer, would be doing work that touched on official things. “There is not always a clear line between his personal and official affairs,” Blanche told the court.
Judge Alvin Hellerstein grilled Blanche on whether Cohen was actually Trump’s personal lawyer handling official things, or if the 2017 payments to him solely involved Daniels. If it weren’t just for Daniels, then why did he stop getting paid come 2018?
“He no longer needed Mr. Cohen, your honor, frankly,” Blanche said.
Hellerstein was skeptical. “The only person who knows what Cohen was hired for is the President, and he’s not declaring anything, or Cohen, and he’s not here,” Hellerstein said.
“Was there a retainer agreement?” Hellerstein pressed.
“The retainer is recorded in a monthly invoice of Mr. Cohen to the president,” Blanche said. But the invoice, which stated payment for “services rendered,” was wanting in Hellerstein’s view. “We don’t know what, if any, services were rendered” based upon the few details on this invoice, Hellerstein said.
Hellerstein said he expected to issue a decision in two weeks, but made it very clear that he was likely to send Trump’s case back to state court. The charges against Trump, Hellerstein said, don’t involve his official work as president.
“The president is charged with, in effect, a hush payment — the money being advanced by Cohen and the money being repaid to Cohen through the president,” Hellerstein said.
“Cohen was hired as a private matter. He was hired as a private matter by a public official, but he was hired as a private matter to handle private matters,” Hellerstein continued.
“It is said that the president hired Cohen to make sure that his private affairs were not mixed with his public affairs. That very definition suggests that Cohen was hired privately — not under color of any presidential office or relating to it,” Hellerstein said. “The fact that it was a president who made that private hiring does not change the facts.”
“There is no reason to believe that an equal measure of justice couldn’t be rendered by the state court,” he also commented at one point.
Trump’s legal woes have only intensified since the surprise Manhattan indictment this spring. He surrendered to authorities in Miami on June 13 after being indicted on 37 federal counts related to alleged mishandling of classified material at his South Florida estate.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. State-level prosecutors in Georgia are also investigating Trump’s alleged attempted election interference.
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