President Trump, Alleging Political and Personal Bias, Wants a New Judge in Hush Money Case
Accusations of political preference appear likely to dog Alvin Bragg’s prosecution of the former president.
The move by President Trump to ask a New York state judge, Juan Merchan, to ”disqualify himself” from presiding over charges relating to hush money payments to an adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, suggests that accusations of bias are likely to be front and center as Mr. Trump faces trial in his hometown, whose political hue is deep blue.
The filing in pursuit of a recusal paints a portrait of Judge Merchan as a jurist who in politics leans to the left, with sympathies detectable in both his family and his wallet. It highlights the incongruity of a criminal defendant who is also a leading presidential candidate. It could foreshadow a vituperative battle over who sits on the jury that will decide Mr. Trump’s fate.
The former president is already angling to remove his case to federal court, claiming that his tenure as a “federal officer” — when he was president — confounds state jurisdiction. That case is before Judge Alvin Hellerstein, of the Southern District of New York. Now, Mr. Trump is moving against the judge — though not the same judge — rather than the venue.
In 2009, the Supreme Court ordained that the question to ask about whether a judge should hear a case is “not whether the judge is actually, subjectively biased, but whether the average judge in her position is ‘likely’ to be neutral, or whether there is an unconstitutional ‘potential for bias.’”
Mr. Trump accuses Judge Merchan of “actual and perceived biases.” He points to the judge’s daughter’s political and financial interest in a digital agency, Authentic Campaigns, that describes itself as one “progressives can trust to get the job done right.”
Mr. Trump notes that Authentic Campaigns’ clients include the “Biden-Harris campaign, Kamala Harris for the People, and Hakeem Jeffries.” Its website notes that it has raised “hundreds of millions of dollars for progressive campaigns.” Judge Merchan’s daughter, Loren, serves as the firm’s partner and president.
For Mr. Trump, that affiliation, which did not surface during the former president’s arrest and arraignment, “creates the very real prospect of tainting what is likely to be one of the most consequential — and politically divisive — criminal prosecutions in the history of this country.”
The former president’s attorneys argue that Authentic Campaigns — and by extension, Judge Merchan’s daughter — “stands to financially benefit from decisions the Court makes in this case.” One piece on the Authentic Campaigns website is entitled “Authentic CEO talks to New York Times about President Trump scamming people online.”
Mr. Trump’s argument for why Judge Merchan should step aside goes beyond family matters. It also sweeps in Judge Merchan’s stewardship of the case against the former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg. In particular, Mr. Trump objects to Judge Merchan’s having urged Weisselberg to cooperate with prosecutors in pursuit of a lighter sentence.
While Mr. Trump was not charged in that case, Mr. Trump’s attorneys cite the advice to, as they put it, cooperate “against Donald Trump and his interests” as grounds for concern in the present case. Both that case and this one touch on allegedly improper financial and accounting documentation.
While Weisselberg has recently left Rikers Island after a five-month imprisonment, his travails — and Mr. Trump’s — could be far from over, as the New York Times reports that the New York county district attorney, Alvin Bragg, is mulling perjury charges against the accountant in an effort to make the charges against Mr. Trump relating to Ms. Daniels stick.
Mr. Trump also points to Judge Merchan’s political donations. The motion lists $15 for the Biden campaign, $10 for the Progressive Turnout Project, and another $10 for a subsidiary of that group, Stop Republicans. Mr. Trump pointedly notes that Judge Merchan “has not placed anything on the record concerning those apparent contributions.”