U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein said in his ruling on Wednesday that Trump “failed to show that the conduct imputed in the indictment is of or relating to any action done by or for the President.”
During a roughly three-hour hearing last month, Hellerstein expressed skepticism about Trump’s argument that he paid off a porn star as president. Trump took the case to federal court in early May, arguing that the case belongs there because the alleged crimes occurred while he was in office and is immune from prosecution. The Federal Court may have proved a more suitable venue for his defence.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg alleges that during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump directed his then-attorney Michael Cohen to pay Stormy Daniels $130,000 to buy her silence about an alleged sexual encounter he 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 moving forward in the New York State Supreme Court,” a Bragg spokesperson said in a statement.
Trump’s lawyers have argued that the fraud charges should be considered violations of US election law, pre-empting the state’s authority to bring the case. Trump also argued that he had “protective jurisdiction” as president, because Bragg’s indictment was “politically motivated”.
Hellerstein said Trump failed to provide evidence to support his claims that the payments were part of his official duties as president. Not every action on behalf of a federal officer can be construed as one of their official duties, the judge said.
“The evidence indicates overwhelmingly that it was a purely personal thing for the president – a cover-up of an embarrassing event,” Hellerstein said. “Hush money paid to an adult movie star has nothing to do with the president’s official business. It in no way reflects the color of the president’s official duties.”
The ruling by Hellerstein, who was named to the bench by President Bill Clinton in 1998, is another headache for Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. His lawyers have sought to remove New York State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan from the case, arguing that he is biased against their client. They criticized his rulings in a trial against the Trump Organization last year in which the company was found guilty.
Merchan has set a start date for the silent money trial on March 25th.
“Democrats have weaponized our great judicial system and are using it to harm their political opposition – an outrageous violation of the public trust,” the Trump campaign said in an emailed statement. They are throwing everything they can at President Trump to prevent his reelection, because deep down they know he will win. This case belongs in federal court and we will continue to pursue all legal avenues to move it there.”
Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School, said Trump may have sought to take the case out of state court to gain a couple of tactical advantages, including removing Merchan from the picture.
One feature of the federal courts is where jurors are chosen. Federal juries in Manhattan include residents of New York, the Bronx, Westchester, Rockland and Dutchess counties as well as from three upstate counties Trump won in 2020 — Putnam, Orange and Sullivan. The state case will be heard by a jury made up solely of Manhattan residents, with President Joe Biden winning 84.5% of the vote.
Richman said Trump may also have hoped that moving to federal court would boost his chances of arguing that he is immune from prosecution as a former president.
“But the default explanation is only delaying and wasting prosecution resources,” he said.
The Bragg case was the first time an indictment had been brought against a sitting or former president. Trump was indicted again in June, in federal court in Florida, for allegedly mishandling classified government documents. He has pleaded not guilty to both 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 on Tuesday he was notified he was a target in a Justice Department investigation into efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, indicating he could potentially be charged with federal crimes.
While the Florida Papers case is probably the most serious threat facing Trump, there are other matters that increase 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 the remaining defamation case of writer E. Jean Carroll, which would have ended that lawsuit.
Arguing that the hush money trial belongs in federal court, Trump’s attorney, Todd Blanche, cited Bragg’s decision to “unlawfully prosecute” his client “for lawful conduct that occurred while the president was in office.” He said the alleged payments occurred from February to December 2017 while Trump was acting within the limits of his authority as president.
Attorney General Matthew Colangelo said the payments were unrelated to 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 better dealt with in the court in which it was brought.
He said, “There is no reason to believe that an measure of equal justice could not be given by a state court.”
The case is New York v. Donald Trump, 23-cv-3773, US District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).