US judge says Trump’s NY criminal case likely belongs in state court


By Karen Freifeld and Luc Cohen

(Reuters) -A U.S. judge on Tuesday said he would likely decline former U.S. President Donald Trump’s bid to move from state to federal court a criminal case stemming from a hush money payment to a porn star.

Trump’s lawyers say federal court is the proper venue for the case, arguing that his actions were related to his presidency. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which brought the charges, says the case has nothing to do with any presidential act and should remain in state court.

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein said he was inclined to side with prosecutors.

“The argument is very clear that the act for which the president has been indicted does not relate to anything under color of his office,” Hellerstein said at the end of a hearing in Manhattan federal court, expressing his “present attitudes” toward the case ahead of a written ruling within two weeks.

Both sides declined to comment after the hearing.

Trump, front-runnner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, pleaded not guilty in April to 34 counts of falsifying business records to hide reimbursements in 2017 to his then-lawyer Michael Cohen for the $130,000 payment to silence porn star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has said she had a sexual encounter with Trump. He denies it.

Trump lawyer Todd Blanche argued that the former president’s payments to Cohen were part of a retainer agreement for legal services. Blanche said that Trump hired Cohen because he had been elected president and needed to ensure that his business dealings were kept separate from his official duties.

When pressed by Hellerstein as to whether Trump and Cohen had a retainer agreement, Blanche conceded he was not aware of one being signed.

Prosecutors said the payments were personal.

“Writing personal checks, even if he did it in the Oval Office, is not an official act,” prosecutor Matthew Colangelo said at the hearing. “These payments were personal payments from personal accounts to a personal lawyer handling personal affairs.”

Hellerstein said it was clear Cohen was hired “to take care of private matters.”

Blanche also argued that the former president is charged with reimbursing Cohen for a payment made to influence the presidential election, and that federal law preempts state law for federal elections.

“Determining whether there is a federal election law violation is something this court should do and not the state,” Blanche said.

But Hellerstein noted that Trump was not being prosecuted for violating election law, and that the purpose of his alleged “deception” did not matter.

“There’s no reason to believe an equal measure of justice cannot be delivered by the state court,” Hellerstein said.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld and Luc Cohen; Editing by Howard Goller and David Gregorio)

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