Juan Merchan Is Trump’s New Least-Favorite Judge

Juan Merchan

Photo: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

For a defendant who is facing four separate criminal indictments, Donald Trump has recently had a great run of luck with the law. One criminal case, over offenses he is alleged to have committed in trying to overturn the 2020 election, has been stalled by his appeal on the grounds of absolute presidential immunity, which has been accepted by the justices of the Supreme Court. In Florida, the federal judge handling a second prosecution, for hoarding and refusing to return classified documents, has made rulings and courtroom comments that sound favorable to Trump (who appointed her). The state judge handling a third case in Georgia allowed that prosecution to be derailed by the soap-opera subplot involving District Attorney Fani Willis. And while Trump still owes half a billion dollars for judgments in recent civil fraud and defamation trials, a New York State appeals court just delivered him a last-minute reprieve, reducing the size of a bond he has to put up to a manageable level and allowing him to set aside talk of financial doomsday scenarios. Trump’s strategy has been to litigate, delay, and attack “corrupt” judges and a “broken” legal system. But it is that system, and its judges, that keep saving him for another day.

On Monday, though, Trump’s legal momentum appeared to meet an equal and opposite force in the form of Juan Merchan, the New York State judge overseeing his scheduled trial on 34 felony counts related to hush-money payments he directed to Stormy Daniels. “This is a witch hunt and a hoax!” Trump shouted to a group of reporters and photographers penned in a dingy fluorescent-lit hallway as he headed to Merchan’s courtroom on the 15th floor a little before 10 a.m. He entered like a star, trailed by his entourage of attorneys and aides, flashing the haughty look of an overconfident card player holding an inside straight.

Trump had reason to feel like he had a good hand. March 25 was supposed to be his trial date, but just as in all his other cases, the prosecutors in Manhattan had hit an unexpected snag. This one was at least in part self-inflicted, and seemed like it might be serious. Two weeks before the trial was set to begin, District Attorney Alvin Bragg had disclosed that his office had received thousands of pages of new documentary evidence related to the case. The documents had previously been held by the federal prosecutors’ office for the Southern District of New York and related to the investigations that led to former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s 2018 guilty plea to various crimes, including some related to the Daniels payoff. For some unexplained reason, though, the evidence had never been previously shared with the DA’s office, and as a result, it had never been given to the defense in the discovery process as required by law. At Bragg’s request, Merchan had postponed the trial until April 15 in order to give both sides time to go through the document dump. He also scheduled Monday’s hearing over the evidentiary issues, which in theory could offer grounds for dismissal — though that seemed unlikely, given the judge’s prior history.

Merchan had previously presided over a criminal tax-fraud prosecution of the Trump Organization, which had resulted in a $1.6 million fine for the company. Trump’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, served 100 days in the prison on Rikers Island in connection with his role in the illegal scheme. Last August, Trump’s attorneys filed a motion asking Merchan to recuse himself from this second case, citing the judge’s treatment of Weisselberg, his donations to Democratic groups totaling $35 in 2020, and his daughter’s employment with a firm that did digital marketing for the Biden campaign. Trump posted on Truth Social that the judge “HATES ME.” Merchan rejected the recusal call, and at a hearing in February, turned aside a defense motion contesting the prosecution theory that elevated the crime of falsifying business records — typically a misdemeanor when charged on its own — into a felony.

Despite all that, though, it seemed as if the defense had good reason to think the judge might have questions about the late disclosure, particularly when it came to evidence regarding Cohen, a key prosecution witness and professional Trump enemy. (His most recent book is titled Revenge.) Trump’s legal team was asking for a 90-day delay, which would serve their overarching goal of running out the clock on all his legal proceedings. At the very least, it seemed likely the judge would call the DA’s office on the carpet, giving Trump something to crow about on the campaign trail. Trump lawyer Todd Blanche had filed a motion for sanctions, claiming that the material contained “voluminous exculpatory evidence” and alleging “extremely serious issues relating to prosecutorial misconduct.”

The judge, a silver-haired former state prosecutor, entered the spare wood-paneled courtroom, which was kept at uncomfortably chilly temperature. He briskly made it clear that he was having none of Trump’s arguments. “This court is of the opinion that there really are not significant questions of fact to be resolved,” Merchan said. He shot a series of rapid-fire questions to both parties.

“How many documents were actually relevant to this case?” Merchan asked.

“The number of relevant, usable documents is quite small,” said Matthew Colangelo, a prosecutor from the DA’s office. “Around 300.”

“We very much disagree,” Blanche replied, saying the number was large and had “grown since last week.”

“How many?” Merchan asked. The judge kept pressing Blanche for a narrow estimate of the documents he thought might potentially be used as evidence in Trump’s criminal trial.

“Your honor, thousands,” Blanche said.

“I’m just asking for ballpark,” Merchan replied.

“I think there are tens of thousands of documents that we have to study.”

“So you’re not answering my question,” the judge said curtly.

Trump — who had been relaxed at a hearing I attended a couple weeks before in Florida, laughing and joking with Blanche — began to mutter and shot jagged looks around the defense table.

Colangelo assured the judge that the DA’s office had obtained and turned over everything it could, but claimed it had no control over the federal prosecutors of the Southern District — an office colloquially known as the “Sovereign District.” Why they had waited to turn over the material was anyone’s guess. In his court papers, Blanche had raised the possibility that the DA had chosen not to press for certain documents, because they didn’t want to have them, because they would undermine their case when turned over to the defense. Merchan didn’t seem to be be interested in figuring out why the lapse had occurred. But he did express outrage at the suggestion of misconduct on the part of the DA’s office. He demanded that Blanche, a former Southern District prosecutor, tell him if he knew of any court case in which local authorities were held responsible for obtaining evidence held by the Feds. Blanche couldn’t cite a precedent.

“If you don’t have a case right now, that is really disconcerting,” Merchan said, his voice rising. “You are literally accusing the Manhattan District Attorney’s office of engaging in prosecutorial misconduct, and trying to make me complicit in it.” Before taking a brief recess, the judge scolded Trump’s team for what he described as a “pattern” of misinterpretation of information. Rather than committing prosecutorial misconduct, he said, “to me, it was the people went so far above and beyond what they were required to do, it’s really odd that we’re even here.”

Trump left the courtroom with a scowl on his face. When Merchan came back, he delivered his ruling from the bench: The trial would proceed without further delay, commencing on April 15. If the hearing proved anything, it was that Trump will get no future favors in Merchan’s courtroom. Judges cannot determine a jury’s verdict, but they set the pace of the proceedings and decide what evidence is allowed in. They guide the selection of the jury and give it the instructions it uses as it deliberates on a verdict. And judges control the temperature inside the room. As much as he might dominate the discourse outside the courthouse, in a month, Trump will no longer dictate events inside it. The first president ever to be criminally prosecuted will have to leave the campaign trail to place himself in the hands of a dozen ordinary New York citizens — and a judge that hates him, he thinks. He is leading in the polls, but could Americans really elect a convicted felon?

“All right,” Merchan said before exiting the courtroom, “see you all on the 15th.”

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