Trump proposes to disqualify judge in porn star’s hush money case

By Karen Freifeld

(Reuters) – Former President Donald Trump is seeking to disqualify the New York state judge handling the criminal case against him stemming from a silent payment to a porn star.

In a motion released Friday, Trump’s lawyers argued that New York State Judge Juan Merchan in Manhattan had a conflict because of his daughter’s job at a consulting firm that works for Democrats. The motion also noted that the judge had encouraged a former leader of the Trump Organization to cooperate in an earlier case, calling it preconceived prejudice against Trump.

Trump’s lawyers also asked the judge to explain $35 in political contributions in 2020. Federal records show Merchan donated $35 to the Democratic group ActBlue, with the money going to the Biden campaign and two groups progressive.

“Your Honor cannot preside over this matter,” Trump’s attorneys wrote in the filing, given questions about his impartiality.

The motion is Trump’s latest legal maneuver to prevent Merchan from overseeing the case. Last month, Trump asked that the case be sent to federal court. He proceeds in state court before a decision.

Trump could face a difficult climb to have Merchan disqualified, as the judge himself must make the decision. The Trump Organization failed to get him to resign over the tax evasion case.

But New York’s rules of judicial conduct prohibit political contributions. Robert Tembeckjian, administrator of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, declined to comment on whether the judge’s apparent $35 donations could be investigated.

Trump has been charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records to conceal a silent $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, says that she had sex with Trump, which he denies. He pleaded not guilty. A trial is due to begin in March.

A spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney said the office will respond in court documents.

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

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 rulings in the case, according to the filing. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump lawyers said the judge pushed former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg to cooperate during plea negotiations in last year’s tax evasion 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 evasion case last year and testified for the prosecution, but did not cooperate against Trump himself, who has not been charged in the case. He was sentenced to five months in prison.

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

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; additional reporting by Luc Cohen; editing by Andy Sullivan and David Gregorio)

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