Trump Judge Practically Eye Rolls at Request He Step Down

Getty Images
Getty Images

Donald Trump’s first day of trial in New York City started with the judge refusing to bow down to the former president’s numerous legal demands that he recuse himself, with Judge Juan Merchan finding that his request stretched the boundaries of the imagination.

“To say that these claims are attenuated is an understatement,” Merchan said in Manhattan Criminal Court, maintaining a near monotone delivery of his explanations for why he simply wouldn’t step aside.

On Monday, Trump became the first former American president to stand trial, facing 34 felony counts for faking business paperwork in an alleged coverup of his hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016. A scowling Trump showed up in the sparsely attended courtroom, looked around, and took a seat with defense attorneys Susan Necheles, Emil Bove, and Todd Blanche.

Speaking to reporters gathered outside the 15th-floor courtroom, Trump said, without evidence, that the proceedings were “political persecution... like never before,” and that it was not a prosecution of him for something he did wrong, but rather, “an assault on America.”

“And that’s why I’m very proud to be here,” he said. “This is an assault on our country. And it’s a country that’s failing.”

Trump’s past volatile and impetuous statements may already be coming back to bite him. Over the weekend, Trump took aim on social media at his former lawyer and “fixer,” Michael Cohen, who is a key witness in the case. At a little bit after noon, Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy asked Merchan to penalize Trump with a $1,000 fine “for each post that violates the court order,” “direct the defendant to take down the offending posts,” and “remind him that further violations could result in jail time.” The total could come to $3,000 or more, a pittance in the grand scheme of things. (Merchan did not immediately rule on the request.)

In recent weeks, Trump’s defense lawyers launched a flurry of legal attacks to get the judge off the case. They criticized how Merchan’s daughter has run a firm engaging in digital campaign work and fundraising for Democrats, pointed to what they incorrectly thought was her social media account, and even cried foul about an innocuous media interview in which the judge appears to have spoken generally about the “intense” preparation needed for members of the judiciary to prepare for trial.

Merchan took each accusation in turn, and instead of speaking freely opted instead to mostly read from past court opinions and judicial ethics guidelines. He cited guidelines that make clear tangential connections don’t necessitate a judge stepping down and noted that “the defendant has not reasonably nor logically explained” how Merchan is actually compromised.

“It is not clear to this court how that demonstrates bias in favor of or against either party, or how it would constitute grounds for recusal,” Merchan said, noting how Trump’s team has resorted to “a series of inferences, innuendos and unsupported speculation.”

Trump’s ploy is still in the works, however, because his team has proceeded on a two-track crusade. While asking the judge directly, they have also sued him personally in the appellate court that oversees him. The First Judicial Department last week refused to delay the trial while this gets worked out, but Merchan noted that the matter is still in the works.

“There is no basis for recusal,” he added. “The court will not address this matter further, pending a decision from the appellate division.”

Trump’s recusal demand was one of several issues being addressed Monday morning, ahead of the start of jury selection.

A ragtag batch of Trump supporters gathered outside the court, but they were vastly outnumbered by members of the press, along with a small group of counterprotesters holding signs reading, variously, “Not above the law,” “Election interference is a crime,” and “Tick tock, time’s up.”

Inside, prosecutors Matthew Colangelo, Susan Hoffinger, and Joshua Steinglass arrived several minutes before Trump, who is facing state felony charges stemming from a $130,000 hush money payment in October 2016 to Daniels over an affair the two allegedly had. Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg in April 2023 hit Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records in the first degree.

The charges against Trump accuse him of employing “a ‘catch and kill’ scheme to identify, purchase, and bury negative information about him and boost his electoral prospects.” A so-called catch-and-kill scheme is one in which the subject of an unflattering story conspires with a publisher to buy the rights to a story in order to deep-six it so it never sees the light of day.

“Trump then went to great lengths to hide this conduct, causing dozens of false entries in business records to conceal criminal activity, including attempts to violate state and federal election laws,” the charges read.

Trump has denied the allegations.

According to a jury questionnaire released publicly by Judge Juan Merchan, the prospective jurors will be asked about their media consumption, any affiliations with organizations such as QAnon and the Proud Boys, and if they have ever read books by Trump himself or former Trump lawyer-turned-whistleblower Michael Cohen.

Former First Lady Melania Trump, notably, was a no-show on Monday morning. However, she appeared beside Trump’s side in Florida last month, offering little more in the way of comments about her plans to join her husband on the campaign trail, beyond, “Stay tuned.”

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