Judge delays Trump’s sentencing until Sept. 18 after immunity claim

NEW YORK — The judge in Donald Trump’s Manhattan criminal case delayed his sentencing until Sept. 18 to weigh whether a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling might imperil the former president’s conviction, the judge said Tuesday in a letter to prosecutors and defense lawyers.

The judge, Juan M. Merchan, may ultimately find no basis to overturn the jury’s verdict, but the delay was a surprising turn of events in a case that had led to the first conviction of an American president. With the election on the horizon, the sentencing might be the only moment of criminal accountability for the twice-impeached and four-time-indicted former president whose other cases are mired in delay.

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Trump, who was convicted of falsifying business records related to his cover-up of a sex scandal during his 2016 presidential campaign, was initially scheduled to be sentenced on July 11, just days before he is to be formally nominated for president at the Republican National Convention. He faces up to four years in prison, though he could receive as little as a few weeks in jail, or probation.

On Monday, the planned sentencing hit a snag when the Supreme Court granted Trump broad immunity from prosecution for official actions taken as president. The landmark ruling, which was decided 6-3 along partisan lines, dealt a major blow to Trump’s federal criminal case in Washington, where he is accused of plotting to overturn his 2020 election loss.

The ruling appears to have little direct bearing on the Manhattan case, which concerns Trump’s personal activity during the 2016 campaign, not his presidency or official acts. And Merchan might be skeptical of Trump’s effort to use the ruling to set aside his conviction.

Yet Trump’s lawyers have argued that prosecutors built their case partly on evidence from his time in the White House. And under the Supreme Court’s new ruling, prosecutors not only cannot charge a president for any official acts, but also cannot cite evidence involving official acts to bolster other accusations.

In a letter to Merchan, Trump’s lawyers on Monday asked the judge to postpone the sentencing while he considered their request to set aside the conviction. In response, the district attorney’s office wrote that prosecutors did not oppose Trump’s request.

“Although we believe defendant’s arguments to be without merit, we do not oppose his request for leave to file and his putative request to adjourn sentencing pending determination of his motion,” wrote Joshua Steinglass, one of the assistant district attorneys who tried the case against the former president.

Trump’s lawyers proposed filing their court papers on July 10, and the district attorney’s office said it would respond two weeks later.

Merchan granted those requests Tuesday and said he would rule on Trump’s motion to set aside the verdict Sept. 6. Then, if a sentence “is still necessary,” the judge will impose it Sept. 18, he said.

The district attorney, Alvin Bragg, was the first to bring criminal charges against Trump last March. Three other indictments followed in three other jurisdictions — Washington, Florida and Georgia — but Bragg’s case is likely to be the only one to make it to trial before Election Day. If he is reelected, the cases will almost certainly grind to a halt.

In May, a jury of 12 New Yorkers convicted Trump on 34 felony counts of falsifying records stemming from a hush-money payment to a porn actor, Stormy Daniels, in the final days of the 2016 campaign. His fixer at the time, Michael D. Cohen, paid Daniels $130,000 to silence her story of a sexual liaison with Trump, who eventually reimbursed Cohen.

While paying hush money is not inherently illegal, Bragg’s prosecutors accused Trump of instructing his employees to lie on company paperwork to hide the nature of the reimbursement.

The district attorney’s case framed the hush-money payment as part of a broader conspiracy by Trump and his allies to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Prosecutors presented evidence detailing how The National Enquirer, the supermarket tabloid, played a central role in the conspiracy with its catch-and-kill strategy of buying and burying negative stories about Trump and publishing sensational and false ones about his rivals.

“After further briefing on these issues beginning on July 10, 2024, it will be manifest that the trial result cannot stand,” Trump’s lawyers wrote in their letter on Monday.

Yet the effort to set aside the conviction might be a long shot. Much of the evidence in the case concerned Trump’s conduct during the campaign and the transition after he was elected but before he was sworn in. Although he was in the White House while signing the reimbursement checks to Cohen, Bragg has argued that doing so was a personal act.

At least one federal judge has already agreed with Bragg. Before the trial, Trump tried to move the case to federal court, arguing that the evidence centered on his official acts as president. But a judge rejected that argument.

“The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the matter was a purely personal item of the president — a cover-up of an embarrassing event,” the judge, Alvin K. Hellerstein, wrote in an opinion last year. “Hush money paid to an adult film star is not related to a president’s official acts. It does not reflect in any way the color of the president’s official duties.”

Even the Supreme Court ruling on Monday appeared in some measure to discourage Trump’s effort to throw out the jury’s verdict. In a footnote, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that a “prosecutor may point to the public record” to illustrate an argument, a provision that appeared to sweep in much of the evidence that Trump wants thrown out, including his tweets, public statements and personal financial disclosure form.

One aspect of the prosecution’s evidence that might be more vulnerable is testimony from former White House employees recounting meetings and conversations with Trump.

Prosecutors called Madeleine Westerhout, a former director of Oval Office operations, who testified about scheduling a February 2017 visit between Trump and Cohen, a meeting where Cohen says they discussed reimbursement for the hush-money payment.

Prosecutors also questioned Hope Hicks, Trump’s former spokesperson, who testified about her discussion in the White House with Trump after The Wall Street Journal reported in 2018 about the hush-money deal with Daniels.

“Mr. Trump’s opinion was it was better to be dealing with it now, and that it would have been bad to have that story come out before the election,” Hicks recalled on the stand, testimony that Steinglass referred to during his closing argument as “devastating.”

But it’s unclear whether that conversation could constitute an official act, simply by virtue of where it occurred. And during the trial, Merchan appeared skeptical of the defense’s argument that the prosecution should not question Hicks about that conversation.

“The objection is noted,” he told Trump’s lawyer, before allowing the testimony to proceed.

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