Judge declines Trump’s request to block Michael Cohen, Stormy Daniels testimony

Former President Trump’s hush money judge will allow Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels to testify at the trial over Trump’s objections.

In two separate decisions issued Monday, Judge Juan Merchan ruled on more than a dozen requests between the two sides to exclude various evidence.

Merchan’s ruling allows Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s (D) office to tell the jury a broad story about three people who say they were paid hush money by Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, to stay quiet about their salacious accusations against Trump.

The trial was slated to begin next Monday, but it has since been delayed for at least a few weeks after new relevant documents came to light. The case still could head to a jury this spring and become Trump’s first criminal trial.

Bragg alleges Trump illegally falsified business records when he reimbursed Cohen for the payment to Daniels, an adult film actress who claimed to have had an affair with Trump. Trump, who denies the affair, pleaded not guilty to his 34 charges.

Prosecutors have looked to portray the payment as part of a broader “catch-and-kill” scheme to quash negative gossip about Trump leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

Merchan’s ruling enables prosecutors at trial to not only call Daniels and Cohen as witnesses but also former Playboy model Karen McDougal and former Trump World Tower doorman Dino Sajudin. Both claim they also were paid off to withhold salacious accusations about Trump.

Trump sought to block the jury from hearing from Cohen and the three who were allegedly paid off. Merchan rejected those demands, but he did agree to place some limitations on what Sajudin and McDougal can testify about.

“Unless the People provide a satisfactory offer of proof, the testimony by or about Sajudin and McDougal, will be limited to ‘the fact of’ and may not explore the underlying details of what allegedly transpired between those individuals and the defendant,” Merchan wrote, adding that he would explain in more detail at the start of trial.

Trump has denied the underlying accusations levied by all three individuals who were allegedly paid off.

Though Trump’s lawyers sought to block each of them from testifying and attacked their credibility, the former president’s attorneys left their most brutal attacks for Cohen, portraying him as a liar who could not be allowed to take the stand given his past legal troubles.

Merchan further ruled that any testimony regarding Cohen’s past guilty plea would not “open the door” for Trump’s counsel to introduce evidence regarding past Federal Election Commission (FEC) complaints dismissed against him or the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) decision not to charge him with campaign finance violations.

There are countless reasons why the FEC and DOJ could have decided not to pursue enforcement against Defendant, all having nothing to do with whether he is guilty of the charges here against him,” Merchan wrote.

The judge’s pair of rulings Monday also resolved a handful of other evidentiary disputes between the two sides.

Last week, Trump in court filings suggested that he intended to present a watered-down, informal advice of counsel defense, wherein the former president would elicit evidence concerning “the presence, involvement and advice of lawyers in relevant events giving rise to the charges in the Indictment.” That evidence, his lawyers said, would be elicited in large part from Cohen.

Merchan ruled Monday that Trump “may not offer, or even suggest,” a so-called presence-of-counsel defense, noting that such a defense would shield Trump from any of the tactic’s downsides, like giving up the right to claim privilege.

“To allow said defense in this matter would effectively permit the defendant to invoke the very defense he has declared he will not rely upon, without the concomitant obligations that come with it,” Merchan wrote. “The result would undoubtedly be to confuse and mislead the jury. This Court can not endorse such a tactic.”

As he ruled on some of the other matters, the judge chastised Trump’s attorneys for raising arguments the judge said he already rejected.

“Rearguing this Court’s prior rulings in this manner is procedurally and professionally inappropriate and a waste of this Court’s valuable resources,” Merchan wrote.

While Trump’s lawyers have said he won’t ask a jury to acquit him on claims of selective prosecution — that the state’s case against him is targeted — the judge precluded him from making those arguments anyway.

The former president cannot point to his indictment’s purported novelty, any pre-indictment delay, the motivations of Bragg or his office, alleged bias of the court and its staff or any consequences Trump may face upon any conviction as a reason a jury should find him not guilty.

Merchan made clear that his ruling on selective prosecution would not prevent either party from seeking to impeach any witness on cross-examination.

“However, both parties are on notice that the Court will closely monitor any attempts to circumvent this Court’s rulings,” he wrote. “The parties are directed to craft questions carefully to avoid inculcating the jury with concerns about matters this Court has already ruled are irrelevant and therefore off-limits.”

Trump’s hush money trial — which is expected to be his first criminal trial — was scheduled to begin on March 25, but a last-minute dump of documents from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York turned the schedule on its head just two weeks out.

Merchan delayed the trial until at least mid-April, and a hearing is now scheduled for March 25, where the judge and parties will discuss the new documents and an updated schedule.

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