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Judge rejects Donald Trump’s bid to move hush money criminal case to federal court

Trump’s lawyers had argued that jurisdiction of the case should be moved to a federal court instead of New York.

A FEDERAL JUDGE has rejected Donald Trump’s bid to move his hush money criminal case from New York state court to federal court.

US District Judge Alvin K Hellerstein ruled that lawyers for the former president had failed to meet a high legal bar for changing jurisdiction.

Judge Hellerstein found that the allegations pertained to Trump’s personal life, not presidential duties that would have merited a move to federal court.

“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the matter was a purely a personal item of the president — a cover-up of an embarrassing event,” the judge wrote in a 25-page ruling.

“Hush money paid to an adult film star is not related to a president’s official acts. It does not reflect in any way the colour of the president’s official duties.”

The decision sets the stage for Trump to stand trial in state court in Manhattan as early as next spring, overlapping with the 2024 presidential primary season in what could be a frenetic stretch of legal action as the twice-indicted Republican seeks a return to the White House.

Separately, Trump is charged in federal court in Florida with illegally hoarding classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate and impeding investigators. Prosecutors want that case to go to trial in December.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche declined to comment on Judge Hellerstein’s ruling, which can be appealed to the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.

The judge signalled his decision at a hearing on the matter late last month, scoffing at defence claims that the alleged conduct at the root of Trump’s charges — reimbursing his long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen as part of a scheme to bury affair allegations that arose during his first campaign — was within the “colour of his office” as president.

Hellerstein said evidence suggested that Mr Cohen, who arranged and made some of the hush money payments, “was hired privately, not under colour of any presidential office or related to it”.

There are invoices showing how much Cohen was paid, “but no proof of what he did,” the judge said at the hearing on 27 June.

Mr Trump pleaded not guilty on 4 April in state court to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records to hide reimbursements made to Cohen for his role in paying $130,000 to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels, who claims she had an extramarital sexual encounter with Mr Trump years earlier.

Cohen also arranged for the National Enquirer to pay Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story about an alleged affair.

Trump denied having had sexual encounters with either woman. His lawyers argue the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses and not part of any cover-up.

Trump’s lawyers asked the federal court in Manhattan in May to take control of the hush money case, contending he could not be tried in state court because some of the conduct alleged in his historic indictment occurred in 2017 while he was president, including cheques he purportedly wrote while sitting in the Oval Office.

The lawyers, Susan Necheles and Todd Blanche, argued that federal officers including former presidents have the right to be tried in federal court for charges arising from “conduct performed while in office”.

A shift to federal court would have meant a broader, more politically diverse jury pool – drawing not only from heavily Democratic Manhattan, where Trump is wildly unpopular, but also from a handful of suburban counties north of the city where he has more political support.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office, which is prosecuting the case, fought to keep it in state court.

Matthew Colangelo, a senior counsel to district attorney Alvin Bragg, argued nothing about the hush money payments and reimbursements involved Trump’s official duties as president. He also disputed whether the legal definition of “federal officer” applies to a president or only to other members of the government.

Had Judge Hellerstein sided with Trump and moved the case to federal court, the former president’s lawyers could have then tried to get the charges dismissed on the grounds that federal officials are immune from criminal prosecution over actions taken as part of their official job duties.

US law allows criminal prosecutions to be moved from state to federal court if they involve actions taken by federal government officials as part of their official duties, among other qualifications. Trump’s request was unprecedented because he is the first former president ever charged with a crime.

Trump’s hush money trial is scheduled to start in state court on 25 March 2024.

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