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Trump's hush money trial has a date, as his Georgia case attempts to disqualify the prosecutor

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The first-ever criminal trial of a former president of the United States is now just over a month away. In New York City today, Judge Juan Merchan denied former President Donald Trump's motion to dismiss the 34 felony counts against him. These are felony counts that stem from hush money payments to an adult film actress back during the 2016 campaign. The judge also announced jury selection will begin March 25. Meanwhile, in Georgia, the Atlanta district attorney took the stand for some combative testimony as Trump and other co-defendants seek to disqualify her from the election interference case there.

Well, NPR's Andrea Bernstein is tracking developments in New York, and WABE's Sam Gringlas is tracking the action in Atlanta. Andrea, I'm going to let you kick us off. How did things go today in New York?

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise. Just minutes after Trump entered the courtroom at 9:30 this morning, Judge Merchan told him that after conferring with a federal judge presiding over the January 6 criminal case in Washington, D.C., he - Merchan - was, quote, "moving ahead to jury selection on March 25." Trump's lawyer, Todd Blanche, stood up to say that was, quote, "a grave injustice" because there's still might be a trial in Florida for Trump's mishandling of classified documents in May. Blanche said this a day after he told a Florida judge that her trial date was not firm. All this clearly irked Judge Merchan, who said at one point to Blanche, stop interrupting me.

In general, court rules in New York require defendants to attend in person, though that can sometimes be waived. Blanche argued that making Trump stand trial while also facing more trials and campaigning was unconstitutional. But nope, this trial is happening. It will begin in late March. It will go into mid-May. And Trump of all of us - and all of us will be in the criminal courtroom waiting for a jury to decide if he falsified business records in order to interfere with the outcome of the 2016 campaign while also a candidate in the 2024 campaign.

KELLY: OK. So that timeline, you said it's going to start late March, go until mid-May, so I don't - six weeks or so? What are we expecting?

BERNSTEIN: So first, jury selection, and there was a lot of back and forth on that today, with the defense saying it wanted to know if potential jurors were supporters of Trump or not. The prosecutor said, no, the issue was could jurors be fair? But Trump attorney Blanche said, quote, "we can't ignore the elephant in the room. He is running for president. He was a Republican president for four years, and he is being tried by a Democratic district attorney." So it seems from the get-go, jury selection will be contentious.

And then there's a matter of evidence which centers on 11 checks Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. wrote to former Trump counsel Michael Cohen to reimburse him for hush money payments that were recorded falsely as a legal retainer. And if today is any indication, everything will be subject to dispute. The longer this case goes on, the more potential delay there is in all the other cases.

KELLY: In all the other cases - speaking of them, Sam Gringlas, remind us what is behind this effort to get the Fulton County DA off of this Georgia case?

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Well, multiple defendants now, including Trump, are accusing DA Fani Willis of financially benefiting from their prosecution. And they point to her romantic relationship with Nathan Wade, a prosecutor she hired for the probe. They argue that the longer this case goes on, the more money he makes to fund their vacation travel. Fulton Superior Judge Scott McAfee will have to weigh all of this evidence and what case law says. But after hours of testimony today, Mary Louise, it is not clear what he might do.

KELLY: What jumped out at you, watching all this today?

GRINGLAS: This hearing really seesawed from tedious to combative. Right as lawyers were arguing over whether Willis could be even forced to take the stand, she appeared in the courtroom and declared that she wanted to testify, saying the motion to disqualify her is contrary to democracy. Multiple times, defense counsel implied Willis and Wade were being untruthful, and Willis outright accused the other side of lying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FANI WILLIS: Let's be clear, 'cause you've lied in this - just let me tell you which one you lied in - right here. I think you lied right here. No, no, no, no. This is the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Judge...

WILLIS: And it is a lie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're going - all right.

WILLIS: It is a lie.

GRINGLAS: A lot of this hearing focused on a key question - when did Willis and Wade's relationship start? A former friend of Willis testified she had no doubt it began in 2019, before the Trump probe. That conflicts with what Wade and Willis has said. They maintained they didn't start dating until 2022. Wade even told the judge during his testimony that he had cancer during the pandemic and barely left his house during that time. Both said the romantic relationship ended last summer.

KELLY: OK. But Sam, I want to focus on this question of financial benefit, because that seems key to figuring out whether Willis has a disqualifying conflict of interest.

GRINGLAS: Right. A lot of scrutiny has been given to Willis and Wade's travel expenses. The two prosecutors say they roughly split the bills on their personal travel, with Willis reimbursing Wade in cash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NATHAN WADE: If you've ever spent any time with Miss Willis, you understand that she's a very independent, proud woman...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I object.

WADE: ...So she's going to insist that she carries her own weight.

GRINGLAS: Defense attorneys seem skeptical of this without any records of bank deposits to back it up. And, Mary Louise, this question of expenses is really at the heart of this matter because it gets to whether there was a financial stake for Willis and Wade in the outcome of the case.

KELLY: Gotcha. OK. So we wait to see whether Fani Willis will remain on the case or not. If she is disqualified, how would that affect the timing?

GRINGLAS: Well, the window for the Georgia case to go to trial this year is already very narrow. And remember, that case is about Trump and his allies' alleged effort to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia. If Judge McAfee disqualifies Willis, the whole office is disqualified. A special prosecutor has to be appointed. That could delay the case for months. And even if he doesn't disqualify Willis, appeals could still trip up the case.

KELLY: Andrea - big picture - because you've covered Trump and his businesses for forever. You've covered so many trials. Just - as we look at this big chunk of the presidential race taking place with Trump spending a lot of time in courthouses, give us just the big picture on this moment.

BERNSTEIN: The reality of that is really beginning to sink in. It really sunk in today. After a nearly a two-month trial in New York, there could be another two-month trial in Washington, bringing us right up to the conventions. It's worth remembering that all four of these cases are happening now because Trump's lawyers delayed them so much. But here we are. Trump's lawyer, Todd Blanche, said in the courtroom today, we strenuously object to what's happening in this courtroom, the fact that President Trump is going to now spend the next two months working on this trial instead of being out on the campaign trail. It shouldn't happen. But it's going to happen.

KELLY: It's going to happen. NPR's Andrea Bernstein in New York. We also heard from WABE's Sam Gringlas in Atlanta. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Bernstein
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.