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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Two cases. Two judges. One high-stakes week for Trump.



Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg during a news conference about his prosecution of former President Donald Trump on charges related to the alleged payment of hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels, in New York, April 4, 2023. This week, Trump faces a ruling in a civil fraud case that could drain his cash coffers, and may also receive a court date for what would be the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)

By Ben Protess, Jonah E. Bromwich and William K. Rashbaum


In two courthouses, two blocks apart, two New York judges could well ruin Donald Trump’s week.


On Thursday, one of the judges, Juan M. Merchan, may schedule the first criminal trial of a former American president for as early as next month — raising the specter that Trump might end up behind bars.


The following day, according to two people with knowledge of the matter, the second judge is expected to deliver a ruling that threatens not Trump’s freedom, but his family business. The judge, Arthur F. Engoron, oversaw the former president’s civil fraud trial and is weighing the New York attorney general’s request to penalize Trump hundreds of millions of dollars and sever him from the company he ran for decades.


The dual threats represent a turning point in Trump’s legal odyssey, a week that could reshape his personal and presidential fortunes as he marches toward the Republican nomination. Engoron’s ruling could drain Trump’s cash coffers, and if the former president leaves Merchan’s courtroom as a felon, it would send the country’s already bitter politics into uncharted realms.


Trump has used the New York cases to falsely portray himself as a victim of a Democratic cabal bent on persecuting him and aiding his presumptive general election opponent, President Joe Biden. And he has repeatedly attacked the two Democrats who brought the cases — Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who filed the criminal charges, and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who led the fraud lawsuit.


But Trump’s New York week underscores the limitations of one of his battle-tested legal strategies: delay. James had to fight through two years of litigation before filing her lawsuit, and it took the district attorney’s office five years to bring an indictment. Both cases have wound their way through the legal system to become immediate threats to the former president, and at an inopportune time.


His legal imbroglio, of course, does not stop in New York. Trump faces 91 felony counts across four criminal cases, in Washington, Florida and Georgia as well as Manhattan. On the civil front, he must contend with Engoron’s fraud ruling and with the $83.3 million he owes from a recent defamation case.


Thursday will be particularly hectic. On the same day, and at the same hour that Merchan is expected to rule, the Georgia prosecutor who accused Trump of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election will face a hearing about her romantic relationship with a lawyer she hired to work on that case. As of Monday morning, Trump was still in discussions about whether he would attend one of the hearings, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.


At Merchan’s hearing, the judge is expected to rule on Trump’s long-shot bid to dismiss the Manhattan criminal case. If he declines to throw out the charges, which stem from a hush-money payment to a porn star in the final stages of the 2016 presidential campaign, he will set a trial date.


Court watchers have been doing calendar calculus, seeking to predict which of Trump’s cases will come first.


For months, the front-runner seemed to be another case in which Trump was charged with subverting democracy after the election: the federal indictment brought by a special counsel in Washington.


That case, originally scheduled for March 4, is widely viewed as the most consequential of Trump’s criminal trials — and perhaps, for him, the most politically problematic. That trial would serve the electorate a steady diet of reminders about Trump’s worst day as president, when a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.


Bragg, even as he has presented his case as an instance of Trump’s interfering with an election, has suggested that he would not object if the Washington case were to go first.


But the Washington trial has been delayed by appeals, and might go before the Supreme Court. The judge in that case, Tanya Chutkan, scrapped the March 4 date, leaving the Manhattan trial, which has been tentatively set for March 25, first on the calendar.


That could still change. As Merchan considers whether to cement the Manhattan date, he is likely to weigh the significance of the Washington case against the uncertainty of its schedule. He and Chutkan have coordinated in the past and they may again this week.


Ultimately, however, the decision is his: If Merchan decides to keep March 25, Trump’s first criminal trial will be in his hometown.


The case centers on what prosecutors say was Trump’s effort to hide a potential sex scandal, both before and after the 2016 election. His former fixer, Michael Cohen, who is expected to be the star witness in the case, and whom Trump has called a liar, paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in the days before voters went to the polls to keep quiet about her story of a tryst with Trump.


Prosecutors say that once Trump was elected, he reimbursed Cohen from the White House, and hid the true purpose of the payments. Trump’s family business, the Trump Organization, falsely recorded the reimbursements as legal expenses.


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