Manhattan’s DA Is Quietly Preparing for Trump Hush Money Trial

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Federal prosecutors have accused Donald J. Trump of plotting to subvert American democracy and mishandling nuclear secrets. But with those cases in limbo, state prosecutors in Manhattan are gearing up as though they will be the first to try the former president on criminal charges — for covering up a potential sex scandal.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office has begun to approach witnesses to prepare them for trial, including Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former fixer, according to people with knowledge of the matter. He and at least two others involved in buying a porn star’s silence about her story of a tryst with Mr. Trump are expected to meet with prosecutors in the coming weeks.

With the potential trial drawing near, the district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, has also added one of his most experienced trial lawyers to the team assigned to prosecute Mr. Trump.

And in recent public appearances, Mr. Bragg has presented the loftiest possible conception of the case, casting it as a clear-cut instance of election interference, in which a candidate defrauded the American people to win the White House in 2016. Mr. Trump did so, the district attorney argues, by concealing an illegal payoff to the porn star, thus hiding damaging information from voters just days before they headed to the polls.

“The case — the core of it — is not money for sex,” Mr. Bragg said in a radio interview last month, objecting to news outlets’ longstanding characterization of it as a hush-money case. “We would say it’s about conspiring to corrupt a presidential election and then lying in New York business records to cover it up. That’s the heart of the case.”

With this rebranding, Mr. Bragg is trying to amplify the importance of his charges and draw a parallel with the highly consequential federal case in Washington, D.C., in which Mr. Trump is accused of seeking to overturn the 2020 election. That trial is scheduled to begin on March 4, three weeks before Mr. Bragg’s case, but appeals could push it into late spring or summer.

If the federal case is delayed by several months, Mr. Bragg would most likely be the first prosecutor to put a former American president on trial, even as he has conveyed a willingness to wait. Although he was the first to secure an indictment of Mr. Trump, Mr. Bragg has said he will not “stand on ceremony,” all but encouraging the federal trials to jump ahead of his in line.

Mr. Trump’s docket includes four indictments comprising 91 felony counts as well as a civil fraud trial and a defamation case that together could cost him hundreds of millions of dollars. The cases are unfolding against the backdrop of the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, which Mr. Trump is on track to secure after a victory in New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday. His legal troubles have become an essential element of his campaign as he portrays himself as a political martyr fighting the Democratic elite.

At the civil fraud trial this month, he delivered his own closing statement, combining his greatest hits from the campaign trail — his accusers are leading a “witch hunt,” the case is a “fraud on me” — with specific attacks on the case against him. “We have a situation where I’m an innocent man,” he said.

And at the defamation trial, when the judge threatened to expel him from the courtroom, the former president replied, “I would love it.”

Although Mr. Trump is making the most of his alternating campaign trail and courthouse appearances, delay is one of his most battle-tested legal strategies, and he has tried to maneuver around all four trials, in hopes of wrapping up the election without ever facing a jury.

But if Mr. Trump must be judged — and he probably will be at least once before the election — there are advantages for him in Mr. Bragg’s case going first. The district attorney’s indictment jump-started the former president’s online fund-raising this spring, riling up his base.

Even some Democrats have argued that the Manhattan prosecution pales in comparison to the one in Washington. The federal case, they say, would spotlight the worst day of Mr. Trump’s presidency, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and it would feature testimony from former senior aides, reminding the electorate of the perils of having Mr. Trump in the Oval Office.

Mr. Trump might be more eager to face the witnesses in the Manhattan case, including Mr. Cohen, his former fixer turned antagonist. In the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Cohen made the $130,000 hush-money payment to the porn star, Stormy Daniels. Mr. Cohen has said he was acting on orders from Mr. Trump, who later reimbursed him, signing some of the checks from the White House.

Mr. Bragg seized on those checks and other documents, accusing Mr. Trump of lying about the repayment to Mr. Cohen to hide its true purpose. The former president’s company falsely classified the reimbursement in internal records as a “legal expense,” leading Mr. Bragg to charge Mr. Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.

Mr. Trump, whose lawyers in the case are Susan R. Necheles and Todd Blanche, savors any opportunity to attack Mr. Cohen’s credibility, calling him a “liar” and a “rat.”

And yet the jury pool in heavily Democratic Manhattan could be sympathetic to Mr. Bragg’s case. In 2022, a Manhattan jury convicted Mr. Trump’s company of tax fraud, and some of the same prosecutors who led that trial will also handle the case against the former president himself.

Susan Hoffinger, the head of the office’s investigations division, is a leader on the team. Joshua Steinglass, a well-regarded trial lawyer who with Ms. Hoffinger led the successful effort to convict Mr. Trump’s company, was recently added. They will be joined by Chris Conroy, who has worked on the case longer than any other member of the team, and Matthew Colangelo, a former senior official at the Justice Department.

The Manhattan case also presents a unique threat to Mr. Trump. Unlike the federal cases against him, which Mr. Trump could seek to shut down should he win back the presidency, Mr. Bragg’s case is immune from federal intervention. In Manhattan, Mr. Trump would not be able to pardon himself, and if convicted, he could face up to four years in prison.

Mr. Trump tried to have the case moved to federal court, but failed. The federal judge evaluating Mr. Trump’s request ordered that it remain in state court and appeared to endorse the legal theory underpinning the district attorney’s case.

The state court judge overseeing the case, Juan M. Merchan, is expected to set the trial date at a hearing on Feb. 15.

By then, an appeals court in Washington may have ruled on Mr. Trump’s bid to have the federal election case thrown out. If the court rules against Mr. Trump, as it appears likely to do, the case could be set for trial even as Mr. Trump appeals to the Supreme Court. In that event, the federal special counsel who brought the case, Jack Smith, might go to trial before Mr. Bragg. (Because defendants have the right to attend their own trials, the two would not take place concurrently.)

But if Mr. Smith’s case is still stalled, Justice Merchan could stick with his current plan to begin the Manhattan trial on March 25. And if Mr. Bragg does in fact go first, his effort to paint Mr. Trump as undermining the integrity of a presidential election could take on even greater importance, as he seeks to persuade the public of the righteousness of his case.

A court filing summarizing the case featured two other hush-money payments during Mr. Trump’s first campaign: one to a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump, and another to a doorman who sought to sell an embarrassing story about the candidate in 2015.

That pattern has led the district attorney to accuse the former president of doing something far more significant than covering up sordid tabloid stories.

“It’s an election interference case,” Mr. Bragg said in a recent television interview.

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