A judge on Wednesday denied former President Donald J. Trump’s request to move the Manhattan criminal case against him from state to federal court.
The federal judge, Alvin K. Hellerstein, signaled in a hearing last month that he was predisposed against moving the case brought by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg. Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors charged Mr. Trump with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, stemming from a hush money payment made to a porn star in 2016.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers argued that the case should be heard in federal court because it related to conduct he engaged in while president.
But in the order that Judge Hellerstein issued on Wednesday, he reiterated his contention at the hearing that Mr. Trump’s lawyers had not shown that the conduct in question — repayments to Mr. Trump’s former fixer, Michael D. Cohen, for the quiet money payment. — was somehow related to the office of the presidency.
Judge Hellerstein wrote that the evidence overwhelmingly suggested that the affair involved something personal to the president: “a cover-up of an embarrassing event.”
“Hush money paid to an adult movie star is not related to official actions of a president,” he concluded in the order. “It in no way reflects the color of the president’s official duties.”
A lawyer for Mr. Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Trump’s effort to move the case was considered a long shot. Still, the order represents a major victory for Mr. Bragg, who obtained an indictment from the former president in March and whose case against him is scheduled for trial in March 2024.
Judge Hellerstein appeared impressed by the strength of the case’s evidence, writing that Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors strongly supported “their allegations that the money paid to Cohen was a reimbursement for a hush money payment.”
Mr. Trump, who is again the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, was also indicted last month in federal court in Miami for tampering with secret documents and obstructing the government’s investigation into his conduct.
On Tuesday, he revealed that the same federal prosecutors had informed him that he was a target in a separate investigation focused on his attempts to retain power after the 2020 election.
Mr. Trump is also under investigation in Georgia, where a grand jury is hearing evidence of election meddling. On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected an effort by the former president’s lawyers to stop that investigation.
At the hearing in the Manhattan case last month, Todd Blanche, Mr. Trump’s lawyer, said the Constitution required Mr. Cohen to be hired to handle the president’s private affairs when he took the White House. Thus, Mr. Blanche said, every job that Mr. Cohen undertook was related to Mr. Trump’s role as president.
But lawyers for the district attorney said Mr. Cohen’s hiring showed just the opposite. One of the prosecutors, Matthew Colangelo, said the repayments to Mr. Cohen represented “personal payments to a personal attorney” handling Mr. Trump’s affairs.
Judge Hellerstein agreed at the hearing, even going so far as to call Mr. Blanche’s argument “far-fetched.” In his ruling on Wednesday, he also expressed significant skepticism about a defense that Mr. Trump’s lawyers were expected to use to argue that the case should be dismissed.
For the charge of falsifying business records to be a felony, prosecutors must show that the records in question were falsified to help commit or conceal another crime.
Mr. Bragg’s prosecutors named three possible crimes that Mr. Trump may have tried to commit or cover up, two of them violations of election laws.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers argued that Manhattan prosecutors could not use those election laws as part of the indictment in state court because the election was federal. But judge Hellerstein was unimpressed by those arguments and wrote that they were “without merit”.
He wrote that prosecutors did not need to show that the relevant laws had in fact been violated – again echoing arguments that prosecutors themselves had made.
At the hearing, Susan Hoffinger, the head of investigations at the district attorney’s office, questioned the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, Alan Garten, about Mr. Cohen’s role.
Under questioning, Mr. Garten acknowledged that the arrangement with Mr. Cohen — with no legal retainer and with payments whose purpose was left a mystery in Mr. Trump’s official ledger — was unusual.
Mr. Garten also said that he was not aware that Mr. Cohen had been paid for any other legal work, but that Mr. Cohen had been paid $420,000.
Prosecutors said $420,000 was the sum agreed upon between Mr. Cohen and the Trump Organization, largely to repay him for the original hush money payment.
Ben Protests contributed reporting.