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How Judge Juan Merchan could strike at heart of Trump’s business empire

Presidents are used to wielding power, but Donald Trump’s fate remains in the hands of one man following his conviction on 34 felony counts in his historic hush money trial.

Judge Juan Manuel Merchan will now weigh options ahead of the sentencing on 11 July, just days before Trump is set to formally gain the Republican nomination for the presidency.

On Thursday, 12 jurors found Trump guilty of falsifying business records after nine hours of deliberations. The crime is a Class E felony in New York – the lowest tier of felony charges – punishable by up to four years in prison.

Justice Merchan could also choose to fine Trump or put him on probation. The case is mired in political and logistical complexities given Mr Trump is a former president entitled to Secret Service protection, who is also running a campaign to return to office.

Manhattan’s District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, has not declared what type of sentence he would seek in this case.

Adding to the unknowns is the fact that Trump’s team is likely to appeal the verdict, meaning the judge could allow the 77-year-old to avoid serving any punishment until those appeals are exhausted.

Christopher Phelps, an associate professor of American history at the University of Nottingham, said Trump is unlikely to face jail time but Justice Merchan could impose a combination of fines and probation that would strike the heart of his business empire.

“The chances of Trump serving jail time are very, very small because the judge would be much more likely to take into account certain factors such as age… and his history,” he told i.

“As an elderly first time offender it would be far more likely to be given probation… this means he would be able to go about his life. But were he be to convicted of another crime then the sentences would be much more draconian.

“Another possibility in New York is that since business fraud has been perpetrated that Trump can no longer do business in the state of New York which could have very serious consequences… I would expect probation, plus range of fines, plus [restrictions on] the ability to conduct business in the state of New York.”

Professor Phelps said the judge was clearly taking pains to limit “political chaos” during the trial, but any potential fines will be in keeping with his multiple felony offences.

“Almost any other criminal defendant in a multiple felony case who behaved in the way Donald Trump did would have been thrown into Rikers jail to see how he liked it,” he said. “Merchan was exercising extreme restraint to try to bend over backward to be fair and impartial in order that he not fulfil the Trump narrative of being a corrupt judge.”

“Now that Trump is a convicted felon they will be proportionate and suitable penalties.”

Legal analysts are split on the type of sentence Trump will receive. Former federal prosecutor Chuck Rosenberg said it’s unlikely Trump will receive jail time given his age and status as a first-time, nonviolent offender.

“I’d be very surprised if there’s any sentence of incarceration at all,” Mr Rosenberg told NBC News. “Of course, he did spend a good bit of time insulting the judge who has the authority to incarcerate him.”

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Justice Juan Merchan presides as prosecutor Joshua Steinglass presents closing arguments during former U.S. President Donald Trump's criminal trial on charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016, in Manhattan state court in New York City, U.S. May 28, 2024 in this courtroom sketch. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg/File Photo/File Photo
Justice Juan Merchan (PHOTO: REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg/File)

New York criminal defence laywer, Ron Kuby, took a different view, saying: “Judge Merchan is known for being a harsh sentencer when it comes to white-collar crimes committed by people who have wealth and privilege and power,”

“It is substantially likely Judge Merchan will sentence Trump to jail or prison time.”

The former president is also facing three other legal cases, two related to efforts to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election and a third relating to classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago – but each is bogged down in legal delays that mean they are unlikely to come before a jury by November.

The next major development Trump faces will be a US Supreme Court ruling due by the end of June on his claims of immunity in the 2020 election subversion cases for official acts he undertook as President. This could lead certain elements to be struck out from the prosecution claims in those three cases.

In New York, Trump and his team have already been laying the groundwork to challenge his conviction in the hush money trial, accusing Justice Merchan of bias.

“The Judge ‘assigned’ to my Witch Hunt Case, a ‘Case’ that has NEVER BEEN CHARGED BEFORE, HATES ME. His name is Juan Manuel Marchan,” Mr Trump wrote on social media, misspelling his name.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the state court system, said Justice Merchan had been randomly assigned to the case.

Trump and the judge have crossed paths before. In 2022, Justice Merchan presided over the tax fraud trial that led to the conviction of the Trump Organisation’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. He is also the judge in the fraud and money laundering case against Trump’s former staffer Steve Bannon.

Born in Colombia, Justice Merchan moved to the US aged six and grew up in Queens. He reportedly got his first job aged nine carrying groceries for tips. He graduated with a law degree from Hofstra University in 1994 and has served on New York’s Supreme Court for 17 years, where he is known for his reserved nature.

The judge has been the subject of controversy after it emerged he had donated money to the Democrats during the 2020 campaign, including $15 (£11) to Joe Biden – going against New York state rules that prohibit judges from making political donations.

His daughter, Loren Merchan, has also worked for Democratic clients including Mr Biden and congressman Adam Schiff through her role president of Authentic Campaigns, which works on digital and fundraising for Democratic clients.

Justice Merchan has rebuffed claims from Trump’s team saying he should recuse himself from the case, saying it would “not be in the public interest”.

During the Manhattan trial, the softly spoken judge asserted his control over the court by issuing a gag order and fining Trump $10,000 for statements made online during the trial. He also warned he would consider jailing him if the fines did not prove enough of a deterrent.

“Mr Trump, it’s important to understand that the last thing I want to do is to put you in jail,” he told the court. “You are the former president of the United States and possibly the next president, as well.”

The judge also cleared the court in order to rebuke witness Robert Costello for a lack of “proper decorum in my courtroom”.

“You don’t say ‘jeez’. And then if you don’t like my ruling, you don’t give me side eye, and you don’t roll your eyes,” he said.

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