Trump lawyer Todd Blanche draws judge's ire as historic trial gets underway

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By Luc Cohen and Andrew Goudsward

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Donald Trump's attorney Todd Blanche took a risk giving up a plush career at a New York law firm to become the first attorney in history to defend a former U.S. president at a criminal trial, and felt the heat almost immediately when a judge questioned his credibility.

Blanche, a former federal prosecutor, is lead lawyer defending Trump in his trial on charges stemming from hush money paid to a porn star. He is also handling several other criminal cases for Trump, who is known for cycling through lawyers.

Some of Trump's lawyers have faced sanctions or even criminal charges of their own stemming from their work for him.

Blanche has already earned several sharply-worded rebukes from the judge overseeing the hush money case.

"Mr. Blanche, you’re losing all credibility," Justice Juan Merchan said at a Tuesday hearing over whether Trump had violated a gag order restricting his public speech about jurors and potential witnesses. Blanche contended that Trump had been trying to follow the court's rules.

Merchan has also accused the defense of making baseless claims and filing frivolous motions in its unsuccessful campaign to delay the trial, which started with jury selection last week.

Blanche, 49, joined Trump's defense team ahead of his April 2023 arraignment on the indictment brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

He is joined on the case by Emil Bove, a partner at Blanche's eponymous law firm, and by Susan Necheles and Gedalia Stern, who represented Trump's family real estate company at a criminal tax fraud trial in late 2022.

In the hush money trial, Trump is accused of covering up a $130,000 payment by his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to adult film actress Stormy Daniels for her silence before the 2016 presidential election about a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump a decade earlier.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records and denies any such encounter with Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

At the trial, Blanche has sought to humanize Trump to a jury drawn from heavily Democratic Manhattan, where Trump rose to fame as a larger-than-life real estate mogul and reality TV star whose personal life was constant fodder for the city's tabloids.

"He's not just Donald Trump that you've seen on TV," Blanche said in his opening statement on April 22. "He's a husband. He's a father. And he's a person, just like you and just like me."

Anna Cominsky, a professor at New York Law School, said the scoldings Blanche has received from Merchan can be par for the course for a criminal defense lawyer.

"A judge being frustrated because an attorney continues to make arguments on behalf of his client is just a judge being frustrated," said Cominsky. "It doesn't mean that an attorney is doing anything wrong."


Blanche had previously represented several people in Trump's orbit. While a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft - one of the oldest law firms in the U.S. - Blanche represented Trump's 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort on state fraud charges that were ultimately dismissed.

Blanche also represented former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani's former associate Igor Fruman, who pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance law. He has also represented Trump's legal and political adviser Boris Ephsteyn.

Blanche left Cadwalader and started his own firm when he took on Trump himself as a client.

“He saw this opportunity and decided to grab it,” said Sarah Krissoff, a former federal prosecutor who worked under Blanche at the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office. “It’s a decision a lot of other prominent white-collar lawyers might not have made just because of the risks involved and the attention and the necessity of being in the public view."

Before entering the private sector, Blanche focused on violent crime prosecutions at the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office and was a co-chief of its branch in White Plains, New York.

As a prosecutor, he was not known for courting publicity or voicing strong political views, former colleagues said.

Blanche now must decide how to respond in the face of likely pressure from Trump to take actions that could hurt both the defense's case and Blanche's professional standing, said Ty Cobb, a lawyer who represented the Trump White House during a federal investigation into potential links between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia and has since become a Trump critic.

"The real challenge for him is how to do this without losing his dignity and reputation," said Cobb, who does not know Blanche personally. "That doesn't mean being any less zealous of an advocate, but it means being supremely conscious of what the ethical rules are and not falling prey to the base desires of your own client."

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York and Andrew Goudsward in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Scott Malone and David Gregorio)