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Former US President Donald Trump (left) speaks toward the press in a hallway outside the courtroom during a recess in a hearing to determine the date of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on March 25, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

NEW YORK: Donald Trump’s criminal trial on charges tied to hush money paid to a porn star will start on April 15, a judge said on Monday, paving the way for the Republican presidential candidate to either be convicted or cleared before the Nov. 5 election.

The date all but ensures that Trump will become the first-ever former US president to face a criminal trial.

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He has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records to hide his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen’s $130,000 payment to silence adult film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election about a sexual encounter she says they had a decade earlier - an encounter Trump denies.

Jury selection for the case was initially scheduled to begin on Monday, but Justice Juan Merchan on March 15 delayed it for at least 30 days after Trump’s lawyers accused Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office, which brought the charges, of trying to bury documents that could help them challenge Cohen’s credibility.

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The documents came from the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which previously investigated the payment but did not charge Trump. Cohen testified that Trump directed him to make the payment and went to prison after pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws.

At a court hearing on Monday in a New York state court in Manhattan, Merchan appeared sceptical of Trump lawyer Todd Blanche’s argument that Bragg’s office engaged in misconduct, and questioned Blanche about why he did not request documents from the US Attorney’s office sooner.

Several legal travails

Blanche said at the hearing that the US Attorney’s office said on Sunday that it would be handing over additional documents related to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

The case is one of several legal travails Trump, 77, faces as he ramps up his 2024 campaign to unseat Democratic President Joe Biden.

He faces three other criminal cases, which focus on his efforts to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden and his handling of sensitive government documents after leaving office in 2021. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

In the hush money case, prosecutors say the Daniels payoff was part of a broader “catch-and-kill” scheme Cohen and Trump hatched to boost his candidacy by buying the silence of people with damaging information. Daniels says she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006. Trump denies an encounter.

Trump’s lawyers say the payment was meant to spare himself and his family embarrassment, not to benefit his 2016 campaign.

Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal charges of violating campaign finance laws through the payment.

Trump’s defense lawyers in January subpoenaed the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which charged Cohen, for Cohen’s bank records and phone and email accounts in January. Merchan in December denied their request to get some of those materials from Cohen himself.

The federal prosecutors handed over the material during the first two weeks of March.

In pushing Merchan for a delay, Trump’s lawyers said they need more time to review the documents and accused Bragg’s office, which brought the charges, of trying to bury material that they could use to undermine Cohen’s credibility.

Bragg’s office said it asked the federal prosecutors for information from their case against Cohen and turned the materials over to the defense last June. They said no further delay was needed because most of the new documents are irrelevant or duplicates of material Trump already had.