A federal judge on Wednesday denied former President Donald Trump’s bid to move his hush money payments case from New York state court to a federal venue.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein's ruling means the case will stay in Manhattan criminal court, where District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office is prosecuting Trump on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.
Trump, who has pleaded not guilty, argued that the payments were connected to his duties as president and that the case should therefore be heard in federal court. Hellerstein rejected that argument.
"Trump has failed to show that the conduct charged by the Indictment is for or relating to any act performed by or for the President under color of the official acts of a President. Trump also has failed to show that he has a colorable federal defense to the Indictment," he wrote in a 25-page ruling.
A spokesperson for Bragg said: “We are very pleased with the federal court’s decision and look forward to proceeding in New York State Supreme Court.”
A Trump campaign spokesperson said in a statement that "this case belongs in a federal court and we will continue to pursue all legal avenues to move it there.”
“It is very clear that the act for which the president has been indicted does not relate to anything under the color of his office,” Hellerstein told attorneys for Trump and the Manhattan district attorney’s office at the time.
The conduct Trump is accused of covering up includes a $130,000 payment his then-lawyer Michael Cohen made to adult film star Stormy Daniels near the end of the 2016 presidential campaign to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Trump.
Trump has acknowledged repaying Cohen in a series of payments in 2017, when he was president, but he maintains the payments were on the up-and-up and that he never had an affair with Daniels.
Trump's attorneys had argued the case should be heard in federal court, where he could claim additional defenses, in part because, they say, he would not have hired Cohen as his personal lawyer had he not been elected president. Therefore, they argued, his actions relating to Cohen were “connected or associated” with his official duties.
Hellerstein disagreed in his ruling.
"The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the matter was a purely a personal item of the President — a cover-up of an embarrassing event. Hush money paid to an adult film star is not related to a President’s official acts," he ruled.
"Falsifying business records to hide such reimbursement, and to transform the reimbursement into a business expense for Trump and income to Cohen, likewise does not relate to a presidential duty," he added.
Hellerstein also shrugged off Trump's argument that he was unfairly charged by the Democratic district attorney.
"Trump argues that a 'politically motivated' district attorney who 'disfavored [Trump's] acts and policies as President' caused the grand jury to indict. Trump fails to show, however, that the grand jury lacked a rational basis for the indictment," he wrote, adding that "there is no reason to believe that the New York judicial system would not be fair and give Trump equal justice under the law."
The case will now go back to state criminal court in Manhattan, where it is being overseen by Judge Juan Merchan. It is scheduled to go to trial in March.