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Trump seeks recusal of judge presiding over his criminal hush-money case, accusing him of ‘significant conflicts’

Donald Trump visit to Ireland

Former President Donald Trump on the 4th hole at Trump International Golf Links & Hotel in Doonbeg, Co. Clare, during his visit to Ireland. (Press Association via AP Images)

Citing allegedly “significant conflicts,” Donald Trump wants the judge presiding over his criminal hush-money case to recuse himself, the former president’s campaign announced in a statement.

The campaign takes aim at the judge’s family, history of modest donations to Democratic causes, and handling of related cases.

“The Judge’s daughter stands to significantly financially benefit from a decision her father may make because of her her direct efforts with Joe Biden’s campaign,” the statement reads.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan’s daughter is a partner and the chief operating officer of Authentic Campaigns, a Democratic consulting firm. The company performed work on multiple high-profile political campaigns, including President Joe Biden’s in 2020.

Before presiding over Trump’s criminal case, Merchan steered the cases of the Trump Organization and its former chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg. The recusal motion accuses Merchan of having “pushed” Weisselberg to cooperate against Trump and his namesake business.

Though it isn’t mentioned in the campaign’s statement, Merchan also has the felony case against another prominent Trump ally on his docket: former strategist Steve Bannon, who faces prosecution for allegedly defrauding donors to We Build the Wall, a crowdfunding effort to construct a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Judge Merchan also apparently made political contributions to Joe Biden and to causes such as ‘Stop Republicans,’” Trump’s campaign notes, referring to contributions that amounted to $35 in total.

Only $15 of that amount went to the Biden campaign, and the two remaining $10 donations went to two causes: Progressive Turnout Project, a voter outreach group, and its subsidiary Stop Republicans.

“This case has no factual or legal merit, having been brought by a District Attorney who ran on a platform of ‘Get Trump,’ an impartial judge is vital to stop this travesty of justice,” the campaign states.

Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche declined to comment on the filing, which has not yet been made public.

Former federal prosecutor Mitchell Epner, who is now a partner at Rottenberg Lipman Rich PC, told Law&Crime that a recusal motion based on the points outlined by the campaign appears to be “doomed to failure.”

“The rulings the Court made during the criminal cases are not a basis for recusal,” Epner said. “Likewise, Justice Merchan’s contribution to Biden 2020 is not a basis for recusal.”

Unlike their federal counterparts, New York state court judges are elected positions, and it isn’t uncommon for jurists to take part in the political process. Merchan was appointed to file a vacancy, but he would have to be elected once his term expires. In that light, Epner said, the size of the donations may be regarded as trivial.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with hush-money payments to silence his alleged affair with pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels. In effecting the payments, Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen took out a home equity line of credit from First Republic Bank and funneled $130,000 through a shell company to Daniels’ then-lawyer Keith Davidson. The Trump Organization, and the then-president himself, then compensated Cohen for that transfer through monthly payments of $35,000, adding up to $420,000, according to court documents.

The difference in the reimbursement accounted for what Cohen would have been forced to have paid in taxes, along with supposed “tech” and “legal” fees. Prosecutors allege that Trump illegally disguised the true nature of the payments — and may have violated tax and campaign finance laws in the process.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."