Donald Trump threw up his hands in frustration on Tuesday as a judge scheduled his criminal trial for March 25 2024, putting the former president and current candidate in a Manhattan courtroom in the heat of next year’s presidential primary season.
Mr Trump, appearing by video conference at a pretrial hearing in the hush-money case, glowered at the camera as New York Judge Juan Manuel Merchan advised him to cancel all other obligations for the duration of the trial, which could last for several weeks.
Mr Trump, wearing a blue suit against a backdrop of American flags at his Florida estate, then turned to a lawyer by his side — their brief discussion inaudible on the video feed — before sitting with his arms folded for the remainder of the hearing.
The hearing lasted about 15 minutes.
Mr Trump said little during the hearing, but lashed out afterwards on social media, writing: “Just had New York County Supreme Court hearing where I believe my First Amendment Rights, ‘Freedom of Speech’, have been violated, and they forced upon us a trial date of March 25th, right in the middle of Primary season.”
“Very unfair, but this is exactly what the Radical Left Democrats wanted,” he wrote on his Truth Social platform. “It’s called ELECTION INTERFERENCE, and nothing like this has ever happened in our Country before!!!”
Mr Trump had pleaded not guilty last month to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records at his family company, the Trump Organisation.
Mr Trump has made the New York case and the long list of other investigations he faces central to his campaign to reclaim the White House, portraying himself as the victim of a coordinated effort to sully his chances.
He often discusses the cases at his rallies and in other speeches, and has repeatedly attacked prosecutors and judges by name.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Merchan reviewed an order barring Mr Trump from publicly disseminating certain evidence turned over by prosecutors.
Mr Trump was spared a personal appearance at the courthouse, avoiding the mammoth security and logistical challenges that accompanied his arraignment last month. Instead, the Republican was connected by video conference, with his face beamed onto courtroom TV monitors.
He is allowed to speak publicly about the criminal case, according to Judge Merchan’s order, but he risks being held in contempt if he uses evidence turned over by prosecutors in the pretrial discovery process to target witnesses or others involved in the case.
Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to payments his company made to his former lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Prosecutors say those payments were intended to reimburse and compensate Mr Cohen for orchestrating hush money payments during the 2016 campaign to bury allegations of extramarital sexual encounters.
Mr Trump denies having had extramarital affairs and says the prosecution is politically motivated.
Judge Merchan’s protective order bars Mr Trump and his lawyers from disseminating evidence to third parties or posting it to social media, and it requires that certain sensitive material shared by prosecutors be kept only by Mr Trump’s lawyers, not Mr Trump himself.
Prosecutors sought the order soon after Mr Trump’s arrest, citing what they say is his history of making “harassing, embarrassing, and threatening statements” about people he is involved with in legal disputes.
Judge Merchan, noting Mr Trump’s “special” status as a former president and current candidate, has made clear that the protective order should not be construed as a gag order and that Mr Trump has a right to publicly defend himself.
Mr Trump’s lawyers are seeking to have his criminal case moved to federal court. It will continue in state court while that plays out.
The hearing comes a day after the plaintiff in the defamation case, writer E Jean Carroll, filed a new claim seeking an additional 10 million dollars (£8 million) or more to hold Trump liable for remarks he made criticising her on CNN the day after the May 9 verdict.
In the defamation case, a jury found that Mr Trump sexually abused Ms Carroll at a Manhattan department store in early spring 1996 and that he made false statements that damaged her reputation after she went public with her claims in a 2019 book.
Mr Trump remained undeterred, writing on his Truth Social platform Tuesday that he “never met” Carroll and that her allegations were a “Fake, Made Up Story” and a “TOTAL SCAM.”