Trump Moves To Disqualify Judge in Manhattan DA’s Prosecution

June 5, 2023

(Reuters) - Former President Donald Trump is seeking to disqualify the New York state judge overseeing the criminal case against him stemming from a hush money payment to a porn star.

In a motion made public on Friday, Trump's lawyers argued that New York state Justice Juan Merchan in Manhattan has a conflict due to his daughter's work at a consulting firm that does work for Democrats. The motion also noted that the judge encouraged a former Trump Organization executive to cooperate during a prior case, calling that a preconceived bias against Trump.

Trump's lawyers asked the judge to explain his political contributions in 2020. Federal records show Merchan donated to the Democratic group ActBlue, with the money earmarked for the Biden campaign and two progressive groups.

"Your Honor cannot preside over this case," Trump's lawyers wrote in the filing, given the questions about his impartiality.

The motion is Trump's latest legal maneuver to keep Merchan from overseeing the case. Last month, Trump asked for the case to be moved to federal court. It is proceeding in state court ahead of a decision.

Trump may face an uphill climb in getting Merchan disqualified, as the judge himself gets to make the decision. The Trump Organization was not successful in getting him to step aside in the tax-fraud case.

But New York's rules of judicial conduct bar political contributions. Robert Tembeckjian, administrator of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, declined to comment on whether the judge's apparent $35 in donations could be subject to an inquiry.

Trump has been charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, says she had a sexual encounter with Trump, which he denies. He has pleaded not guilty. A trial is scheduled to begin in March.

A spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney said the office would respond in court papers.

Lucian Chalfen, a New York court spokesman, declined to comment on behalf of Merchan.

Merchan's daughter, Loren, is a partner and president of Authentic Campaigns, whose clients include progressive causes and Democratic officials and stands to benefit from decisions in the case, the filing said. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump's lawyers say the judge pushed former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg to cooperate during plea negotiations in last year's tax fraud case against him and the company. In the filing, they say the judge told Weisselberg he would be sentenced to at least one to three years in prison even if he pleaded guilty unless he cooperated against Trump and his interests.

Weisselberg pleaded guilty in the tax fraud case last year and testified for the prosecution but did not cooperate against Trump himself, who was not charged in that case. He was sentenced to five months in jail.

The Trump Organization was found guilty of tax fraud and fined $1.6 million.