The judge says Donald Trump's trial in New York will last up to six weeks. Photo: AFP

Trump to stand trial on 25 March in New York criminal hush money case

Donald Trump will become the first former US president to stand trial on criminal charges after a New York judge on Thursday denied his request to dismiss an indictment stemming from hush money paid to a porn star and set a March 25 trial date.

Justice Juan Merchan’s ruling during a testy hearing in Manhattan means that Trump will stand trial in at least one of the four criminal cases he faces as he pursues the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the 5 November US election.

Trump, 77, had asked Merchan to toss the 34-count felony indictment, which charges him with falsifying business records to cover up the $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election. Merchan took less than 10 minutes to deny his request and confirm the trial date.

Merchan said the trial could last five or six weeks, ending in late April or early May. Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat.

A guilty verdict against a former president, like the trial itself, would be unprecedented in US history. Though it would not legally prevent him from running for president, Reuters/Ipsos polling has found that a conviction could erode his support among voters.

Trump attended the hearing, sitting next to his lawyers at the defence table and occasionally conferring with them.

After the hearing, Trump repeated his claims that the case was politically motivated.

“They want to keep me nice and busy so I can’t campaign,” Trump said.

Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche told the judge during the hearing that it would not be fair for him to stand trial while he was running for president.

“It should not happen in this country,” Blanche said.

Merchan responded, “That’s not a legal argument. I’ll see you on March 25.”

The trial is set to start before any of Trump’s three other criminal cases.

A handful of protesters held signs denouncing Trump and shouted “no dictators in the USA” outside the courthouse.

The case centres on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s $US130,000 payment to Daniels – whose real name is Stephanie Clifford – to prevent her from publicly speaking ahead of the 2016 election about a sexual encounter she has said she had with Trump a decade earlier. Trump has denied this occurred.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to violating federal campaign finance laws.

Trump may effectively have wrapped up the Republican nomination by the time the trial is scheduled to start. He has won the first four state nominating contests. Dozens more will have taken place before the trial date.

Opinion polls show him with a wide lead over his lone remaining primary challenger, Nikki Haley, and effectively tied with Biden. But one in four Republicans and about half of independent voters have indicated they would not vote for Trump if he is convicted in any of his four criminal cases, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday.

Trump’s political and legal calendars are increasingly overlapping ahead of his expected rematch with Biden, who defeated him in the 2020 election. Trump has used his frequent court dates to help raise money for his presidential campaign, though the strategy is seeing diminishing returns after he raked in millions around his first appearances last year.

Another hearing in Georgia

In a separate court hearing on Thursday, Trump’s lawyers asked a Georgia judge to disqualify the prosecutor who charged him and several allies with crimes involving trying to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state. The prosecutor, Fani Willis, has admitted to a romantic relationship with a lawyer on her team.

Trump also faces federal charges in Washington over his efforts to overturn his election loss and in Florida over his handling of classified documents. Trump has pleaded not guilty in all the cases.

Prosecutors in the hush money case have said Trump’s New York-based family real estate company recorded his 2017 reimbursements to Cohen as legal expenses, violating a state law against falsifying business records to conceal another crime. They have said Trump was seeking to cover up federal campaign finance law violations as well as violations of a state law that prohibits promoting a candidacy by unlawful means.

Blanche said he might try to move the trial out of Manhattan, where Trump is likely to face a liberal-leaning jury pool.

He and other lawyers have argued that Trump should not face state charges for alleged violations of federal election law. Bragg’s office has said the state law that penalises falsifying business records applies to both federal and state elections.

This story was first published by Reuters.

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