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Trump asks appeal court to intervene in last-minute bid to delay hush-money case

Lawyers for Donald Trump are bidding to delay his hush-money trial (Manuel Balce Ceneta/PA)
Lawyers for Donald Trump are bidding to delay his hush-money trial (Manuel Balce Ceneta/PA)

Donald Trump asked a New York appeals court on Monday to reverse his gag order and move his hush-money criminal trial out of Manhattan in an 11-hour bid for a delay just a week before it is scheduled to start.

A judge in the state’s mid-level appeals court was to hold an emergency hearing on Monday afternoon after the former president’s lawyers filed paperwork challenging Manhattan Judge Juan M Merchan’s pre-trial rulings.

Trump lawyer Emil Bove argued that the presumptive Republican nominee faces “real potential prejudice” as a defendant in heavily Democratic Manhattan. Citing defence surveys and a review of media coverage, Mr Bove argued that jury selection, scheduled to start next Monday, “cannot proceed in a fair manner”.

The documents themselves were placed under seal, but a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press they pertained to Mr Trump’s gag order — recently expanded to prohibit comments about judge’s family — and the Republican’s desire to move the trial out of Manhattan.

The person was not authorised to speak publicly and did so on condition of anonymity.

Messages seeking comment were left for Mr Trump’s lawyers, the Manhattan district attorney’s office and a spokesperson for New York’s state court system.

Trump Hush Money
Judge Juan M Merchan in his chambers in New York (Seth Wenig/AP)

Mr Trump had pledged to appeal after Judge Merchan ruled last month that the trial would begin on April 15. His lawyers had pleaded to delay the trial at least until summer to give them more time to review late-arriving evidence from a prior federal investigation into the matter.

Judge Merchan, who had already moved the trial from its original March 25 start date because of the evidence issue, said no further delays were warranted.

Mr Trump’s lawyers filed their appeals on Monday on two separate court dockets. One was styled as a lawsuit against Judge Merchan, a legal mechanism allowing them to challenge his rulings.

In New York, judges can be sued over some judicial decisions under a state law known as Article 78. Mr Trump has used the tactic before, including against the judge in his civil fraud case in an unsuccessful last-minute bid to delay that case last fall.

A clerk at the appeals court — the Appellate Division of the state’s trial court — said no documents were publicly available from either appeal docket.

Mr Trump’s hush-money trial is the first of his four criminal indictments slated to go to trial and would be the first criminal trial ever of a former president.

Mr Trump is accused of falsifying his company’s records to hide the nature of payments to his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who helped Mr Trump bury negative stories during his 2016 campaign.

Cohen’s activities included paying adult film actor Stormy Daniels 130,000 dollars (£102,704) to suppress her claims of an extramarital sexual encounter with Mr Trump years earlier.

Mr Trump pleaded not guilty last year to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. He has denied having a sexual encounter with Ms Daniels. His lawyers argue the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses.

Mr Trump’s move on Monday is the latest escalation in his battles with Judge Merchan.

LIV Golf Trump
Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump speaks on the phone as he watches play in the final round of LIV Golf Miami, at Trump National Doral Golf Club, on Sunday (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

The presumptive Republican nominee assailed the judge on social media after he imposed a gag order last month barring Mr from making public statements about jurors, witnesses and others connected the case. After Mr Trump’s complaints, Judge Merchan expanded the gag order to include members of his own family.

Last week, Mr Trump renewed his request for the judge to step aside from the case, citing Judge Merchan’s daughter’s work as the head of a firm whose clients have included his rival President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other Democrats.

The former president alleges the judge is biased against him and has a conflict of interest because of his daughter’s work. The judge rejected a similar request last August.

Mr Trump has also made numerous other attempts to get the trial postponed, echoing a strategy he has deployed in his other criminal cases.

“We want delays,” Mr Trump proclaimed to TV cameras outside a February pre-trial hearing in his hush-money case.

Judge Merchan last week rejected his request to delay the trial until the US Supreme Court rules on presidential immunity claims he raised in another of his criminal cases.

The New York judge has yet to rule on another defence delay request, which claims that Mr Trump will not get a fair trial because of “prejudicial media coverage”.

Mr Trump has suggested on social media that the trial should be moved to Staten Island, the only New York City borough he won in 2016 and 2020.

Mr Trump also filed an eve-of-trial lawsuit against the judge in his New York civil fraud case, accusing the jurist of repeatedly abusing his authority. Among other issues, Mr Trump’s lawyers in that case complained that Judge Arthur Engoron had refused their request to delay the trial. Their suit was filed about three weeks before the trial was slated to begin.

A state appeals court rejected Mr Trump’s claims, and the trial started as scheduled October 2. Judge Engoron, who decided that case without a jury, ruled that Mr Trump, his company and key executives defrauded bankers and insurers by overstating his wealth in documents used to get loans and coverage.

Mr Trump denied any wrongdoing and is appealing the finding and more than 454 million dollars (£358 million) in penalties and interest.