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Trump state prosecutions reach a critical point on the same day in two cities

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — Two cases that could defy Donald Trump’s capacity to thwart prosecutions and even to overturn eventual convictions against him if he returns to the White House reach critical tests on Thursday with major implications for the 2024 election.

In the latest remarkable twist of his multiple legal sagas, Trump is in court in New York for a procedural hearing ahead of his trial over a hush money payment to an adult film star before the 2016 election. Over Trump’s objection, a judge confirmed that his trial will start on March 25, when jury selection begins. It will mark the first time the fate of an ex-president and potential presidential nominee has been put to a jury in a criminal case.

While Trump is in court in New York, he also is at the center of another drama in Georgia where a judge is holding an evidentiary hearing into an attempt to disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and to throw out a vast racketeering case against Trump and associates over his attempt to subvert President Joe Biden’s 2020 election win in the swing state. Judge Scott McAfee has already said that Willis could be disqualified if she benefited financially from a romantic relationship with a colleague she appointed to be a prosecutor in the case.

Most of Trump’s legal filings in various cases have one thing in common: an attempt to prevent them from moving to trial and to delay accountability — at least until the next election. Trump has a particular interest in stopping the New York hush money and Georgia election interference cases because even as president with a sympathetic attorney general, he would find it difficult to interfere in ongoing prosecutions, to overturn convictions or even to pardon himself since this executive power does not cover state crimes.

The high-stakes hearings nearly 900 miles apart speak to the extraordinary entanglement of the 2024 election and Trump’s legal quagmire that now spans multiple presidential elections. Thursday will not even be the first time this week that the ex-president’s legal plight is playing out in two separate cities. On Monday for instance, Trump was in court in Fort Pierce, Florida, for a hearing over his indictment related to retaining classified documents on a day when his lawyers sent a filing to the US Supreme Court in Washington based on his expansive demands for absolute presidential immunity to shield him from his actions after the 2020 election.

Emphasizing his constant double duty in the courtroom and the campaign trial, the former president gave a fiery speech in South Carolina Wednesday night ahead of the state’s primary later this month – before heading to New York. “They’re weaponizing law enforcement for high level election interference — that’s what they’ve done,” he said. “I am being indicted for you, never forget,” Trump told his crowd. “I am delighted to be doing it.”

Just before Trump spoke, special counsel Jack Smith sent his reply to Trump’s immunity claims to the Supreme Court, arguing that there was a vital public interest in seeing him tried — though amid the accused’s claims of political persecution, Smith didn’t specifically reference the narrowing calendar before November’s election.

In yet another case, another judge in New York is expected to rule on Friday whether Trump will have to pay hundreds of millions in dollars over ill-gotten gains exposed in a civil fraud trial that targeted the ex-president, his adult sons and the Trump Organization. The ruling could remove Trump’s capacity to do business in New York — the city where he made his name.

The legal and political collision that seems to become more intense with every passing week makes it all but certain the current election will sow divisive, long-term aftereffects however Trump’s legal perils end that will deepen the country’s political estrangement and further damage trust in electoral and judicial institutions.

Trump is back in the city where he made his name

The former president is making a habit of showing up in court and staging histrionics to express his contempt for the legal system and to frame the prosecutions he’s facing as political persecution — the dominant theme of his 2024 election campaign.

Outside court in New York on Thursday, Trump offered a preview of his tactics ahead of the coming trial, accusing President Joe Biden’s White House of running “election interference.” There is, however, no basis for Trump’s claims that the White House has any role in directing the district attorney’s case.

Trump’s presence has the potential to turn any sober legal hearing into a circus, and several judges have become infuriated as they struggle to keep him under control.

In the New York case, Trump is facing 34 charges of falsifying business records. He allegedly did so to cover up payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels to stop her from going public over an alleged past affair in a way that could influence voters. The ex-president, who denies the affair, has pleaded not guilty in this case, as he has to all four of his criminal indictments.

Some legal experts see the New York case as the least serious of the four criminal threats facing the former president, and even if he is convicted, he is not expected to face a jail term. Others, however, see the 2016 case as the first stirrings of Trump’s attempts to mislead voters and to interfere in the conduct of US elections.

As the expected first criminal trial, the New York case could still have important political implications. So far, polling evidence and the results of early Republican primary races suggest that Trump’s indictments have served to unite the party’s grass roots voters behind his campaign. But the impact of Trump’s legal problems on a wider electorate is still to be tested. Several recent polls have suggested that some voters could have second thoughts about him if he is a convicted felon by Election Day.

A vital sideshow to Trump’s racketeering trial will take place in Georgia

In Georgia, McAfee is holding an evidentiary hearing into allegations that Willis benefited financially from a romantic relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade after she hired him.

“The issues at point here are whether a relationship existed, whether that relationship was romantic or non-romantic in nature, when it formed and whether it continues,” McAfee said Monday. “And that’s only relevant because it’s in combination with the question of the existence and extent of any benefit conveyed as a result of their relationship.”

One of Trump’s co-defendants, Michael Roman, is alleging that Willis and Wade benefited significantly from the case at the expense of taxpayers and that there is a significant conflict of interest. He is citing financial statements from Wade’s divorce proceedings to argue that he took Willis on lavish vacations after she hired him. Roman is calling both for the dismissal of Willis and for the shelving of the entire case, arguing that it has raised questions about fairness in the legal system and that the entire prosecution has been tainted by the drama.

But a lawyer for the district attorney is accusing Roman of trying to divert attention from the underlying case. “The defense is not bringing you facts, the defense is not bringing you law, the defense is bringing you gossip,” attorney Anna Cross said. “The court should not condone that practice.”

In an amicus brief filed with the court, a group of legal experts, former prosecutors and law professors argued that even if all the allegations against Willis are true, “they do not mandate disqualification here. Indeed they do not come close.”

Willis has suggested that the allegations are motivated by race. “Is it that some will never see a Black man as qualified, no matter his achievements?” Willis said last month at Big Bethel AME Church in Atlanta, referencing Wade without specifically naming him.

Speaking on CNN “This Morning” in January, Michael Moore, a former US Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said that the allegations against Willis would not be “destructive” to the vast racketeering case against Trump and his fellow defendants. At the same time, however, a change of prosecutor could substantially delay the proceedings, in a way that plays into some of Trump’s goals.

At one point, CNN reported, Trump had shown an interest in attending Thursday’s hearing in Georgia rather than the one in New York, but he was convinced that since he was personally affected by the latter case it would make more sense for him to be there.

In the likely event that the judge in New York rejects Trump’s dismissal motion, the ex-president is certain to claim that he is being political victimized. And if Willis is not dismissed from the case in Georgia, he is sure to use the mere existence of allegations against her to argue that justice has been tainted and that those seeking to call him to account are corrupt. This does not only have the political effect of solidifying Trump’s appeal to supporters as he claims he’s a victim of witch hunts. It also bolsters his long-term attempts to create a public narrative that any future convictions against him will be unjust.

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