Trump demands recusal of judge overseeing hush money criminal case

Former President Trump is calling for the New York judge overseeing his hush money criminal case to recuse himself, arguing the judge cannot be impartial.

Trump’s lawyers noted in a new filing apparent political donations Judge Juan Merchan made to then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and liberal-leaning groups. They also referenced the judge’s participation in a previous case related to Trump and reports that Merchan’s daughter works at a progressive digital agency.

“This case before this Court is historic and it is important that the People of the State of New York and this nation have confidence that the jurist who presides over it is impartial,” Trump’s lawyers wrote. “Most respectfully, the foregoing facts compel the conclusion that Your Honor is not and thus should recuse.”

Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records in connection with reimbursements made to his then-fixer, Michael Cohen, for making a $130,000 hush payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.

Trump has pleaded not guilty, while he also remains under multiple other criminal investigations.

A person named Juan Merchan who works for the New York court system donated $35 in July 2020 to political causes, according to Federal Election Commission records. The donations comprise a $15 donation to Biden’s presidential campaign, $10 to the Progressive Turnout Project and $10 to a group called “Stop Republicans.”

Trump’s lawyers demanded Merchan explain the contributions.

“The fact that Your Honor previously donated money to President Trump’s opponent in 2020 might suggest to the reasonable observer that the Court would rather another candidate be elected in 2024 over President Trump,” the attorneys wrote.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office declined to comment and indicated it will respond in court papers.

Trump’s legal team further took aim at media reports that Merchan’s daughter is the chief operating officer at a progressive digital agency, Authentic Strategies, which lists Biden’s campaign and other Democratic candidates as clients.

“Your Honor’s familial relationship with the President and COO of Authentic is particularly problematic given the role this very case may play in political campaigns and advertising in the 2024 presidential election,” Trump’s team wrote. 

“It is likely that many of President Trump’s opponents, both political candidates and organizations, will attempt to use this case — and any rulings by the Court — to attack him,” they continued. “Indeed, virtually every client listed on Authentic’s website has been critical in the past of President Trump and fundraised on these criticisms.”

The Hill has reached out to Authentic Strategies for comment.

Trump’s filing further notes Merchan’s role overseeing the criminal prosecution of Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s former chief financial officer. Weisselberg as part of a plea deal was sentenced to five months in jail for his participation in a tax-fraud scheme, and Trump’s lawyers are accusing Merchan of overstepping by attempting to induce Weisselberg to cooperate against Trump. 

New York trial judges are not categorically barred from facilitating plea agreements, but they must abide by certain limits. 

Susan Necheles, one of Trump’s attorneys who signed the recusal motion, represented the Trump Organization as the Manhattan district attorney’s office prosecuted the scheme. When the Trump Organization had its trial for tax fraud, Necheles squarely pinned the blame on Weisselberg.

“Your Honor’s prior conduct in attempting to induce cooperation against President Trump and his interests creates a perception that Your Honor is biased against President Trump and warrants recusal in this case,” Necheles and Todd Blanche, another Trump attorney, wrote in court filings on Friday.

“Surely, the Court would not have pushed Mr. Weisselberg to cooperate against President Trump and his interests unless it thought he was someone who was worthy of prosecution,” they continued. “That mindset reveals Your Honor as someone who has prejudged the defendant’s guilt and is biased against his interests.”

Trump's lawyers in recent weeks have separately attempted to move the former president's case to federal court, a move prosecutors are opposing. Merchan retains oversight of the case until the federal court rules on that attempt.

—Updated at 4:14 p.m.