When former President Donald Trump heard that Judge Juan Merchan would preside over his indictment in New York, he was furious.
“The judge who ‘assigned’ my witch-hunt case, a ‘case’ NEVER OPENED BEFORE, HATES ME,” Trump wrote in a Truth Social post Friday morning. Trump claimed Merchan “persuaded” his former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, to plead. He concluded that he was “APPELLING”! the selection of judges.
But far from the kind of judges who pressure those who come to his court, Merchan has a widespread reputation for being as calm and collected as they come.
“He’s a very balanced guy. He is thoughtful. He is listening. Bright, kind of cool,” said New York attorney Adam S. Kaufmann, who worked with him in the Manhattan Attorney’s Office in the 1990s.
In court, Merchan’s tone is unwavering. He often takes breaks. He chooses the wording of a suggestion or question carefully so as not to appear biased. The cadence of his speech can best be described as adagio– gently and just a little slower than your average Manhattan criminal judge.
And yet it is true that Trump’s legal tactics have thrown him completely off course.
While leading the tax fraud trial of two Trump Organization companies in December, Merchan repeatedly lost patience when Trump’s corporate lawyers broke the rules – leading witnesses, reading portions of transcripts the jury wasn’t allowed to hear, and attempting to… Distracting juries into believing the case was about the Trump man, not his companies.
At one point during the trial, he repeatedly dragged Trump Corp attorneys. and the Trump Payroll Corp. into a quiet sidebar to privately admonish them for raising unfounded objections to the prosecutors’ interruption – only to have them minutes later defy him and force the judge to send the jury out of the room.
“It’s your responsibility to make sure…that doesn’t happen again,” he warned sternly.
Finally, he ordered the convicted companies to pay $1.6 million for tax evasion, and he sentenced Weisselberg – who pleaded guilty – to five months in prison on Rikers Island.
“It was driven out of sheer greed. Plain and simple. The entire case was driven by greed,” Merchan chided Weisselberg, a longtime Trump aide who was loyal to his boss for nearly 50 years.
Apparently, Merchan’s treatment of Weisselberg upset Trump.
In his post Friday morning, Trump gave the judge’s full name — the usual strategy he resorts to when painting a target on an enemy’s back. But as usual, he misspelled “merchan.” Critics immediately noted how Trump’s actions reflected his racist tirade against US District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel in California in 2016, when he felt Curiel would not be able to judge simply because he was born in Mexico .
But with Merchan, Trump can expect a judge known among local defense attorneys and law enforcement for being “in the middle,” said former Manhattan prosecutor Catherine A. Christian.
“He has an excellent reputation,” Christian told The Daily Beast.
Merchan’s journey — and the people he met along the way — uniquely positions him for the great task that now lies before him: presiding over a historic trial in which a former American president faces serious charges that… could put him in jail.
Merchan was born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1962 while the country was still plagued by a decades-long civil war that killed 2 percent of all Colombians, a haunted period of mass torture described as bloodthirsty La Violencia. His family moved to Queens, New York when he was just 6 years old and did what many immigrants do: start from scratch. According to Merchan’s future colleagues, his father washed dishes at a local restaurant to provide for the family.
Merchan later went to Baruch College, but friends told The Daily Beast the journey was a bumpy ride. They said Merchan took several breaks from his studies to be a working father who could support his own young family. Eventually graduating from Hofstra University with a law degree in 1994, he joined the Manhattan Attorney’s Office at an extraordinary time.
The city was besieged by an unprecedented crime wave that lasted two decades. Mayor Rudy Giuliani and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton had just adopted the police’s vicious “broken window” policy — cracking down on every small infraction under the theory that small crimes lead to big ones. And it was up to these young assistant prosecutors to be at the forefront of this legal assault.
Defense attorneys are used to getting “justice at the turnstile,” said David G. Liston, a member of Merchan’s rookie class. “And we were the first or second grade of ADAs to go to court and say 35 shoplifting is 35 too many. The accused can plead guilty or go to court.’”
“We punched bags,” Liston continued. “We were beaten up every day when we went to court. Judges would yell at us. Defendants would yell at us. But we all have developed thick skins. If we thought we were doing the right thing, we were ready to deal with it.”
These weary young prosecutors headed to the pub after a long day — but not Merchan.
“As rookie ADAs, most of us were single and having a great time. But when we got beers, he said, ‘I have kids, I have to go home.’ A very family-oriented guy,” Liston recalled.
The onslaught of violent cases and the round-the-clock prosecution of even minor crimes swept the courts and prisons, colleagues recalled. There were times when the interpreters weren’t available at 2am to speak to anyone involved in the case — and that’s when Merchan would shine. Other prosecutors recall how he translated their reports from Spanish into English to ensure each person’s story was heard fairly and accurately, something he would later take to the bench with him.
“He had a kind of dignity, a humility about him. He spoke to people in a way that made them feel respected,” Liston said.
After five years of prosecuting crimes, Merchan spent another five years with the New York City Attorney’s office, where he cracked down on fraudsters. During his senior year there, Merchan nabbed the owner of a fake GED home school and shut down a fraudulent modeling agency that roamed Long Island malls looking for impressionable parents who would let them take pictures of their kids who wanted to be models.
Maga die-hards may be surprised, but Merchan managed to sidestep New York’s notoriously corrupt, Democrat-controlled electoral system. It’s a system that subjects candidates to a shadowy system of politically charged interviews with local kingmakers – a far cry from the agnosticism normally expected of would-be judges. Indeed, in 2006, Merchan was appointed by then-Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the partisan billionaire known for benching moderate parties.
After spending time at Bronx Family Court, Merchan became one of the first judges to head the city’s new psychiatric court, an experiment that embodied the polar opposite of “broken windows” — it gave defendants a chance, on drugs Addiction and clinical behavioral problems to be treated.
“He was there when it started, when dispositions to treat mental illness were not yet in vogue. He ran this courtroom. He took a risk for people,” said Christian.
Any defendant who appeared before him was a gamble. Give the wrong person a second chance and an innocent person could get hurt – or worse.
“Depending on your mental illness, things can go wrong on a bad day. Then you’ll be in the newspaper,” said Christian.
There, Merchan cemented a reputation for having a stoic approach, compassionate but firm.
Benjamin Thompson, a business attorney in New York City, recalls one pro bono case in which he represented a man who had a long history of arrests, was in and out of prisons constantly, and even fled a transitional home. The man eventually reached the end of the street when he stole a car and led police in a chase. Merchan enrolled him in the court’s recovery program and reviewed him for two years.
“Mercan was extremely patient and understanding. He picked the right times and situations to be firm and strict,” Thompson recalled.
When the man graduated from the program, Merchan held something of a graduation ceremony. Everyone in the courtroom stood up, applauded and cheered.
“Judge Merchan is simply one of the most wonderful people I have ever met in my professional life. And one of the most deserving and fit people to be in a position of judicial discretion and authority,” Thompson said.
Merchan, who has been handling crimes in Manhattan for years now, is very familiar with Trump and his legal tactics. The way he handled the Trump Organization’s refusal to release evidence leading up to their tax fraud investigation shows his extreme caution and desire to avoid fanfare and media attention — even to the point where he angered the very office , where he started his career. In late 2021, he held a secret, day-long contempt trial in which he punished the company for failing to properly respond to prosecutors’ subpoenas. But it didn’t reveal its existence until the company lost the lawsuit a year later — and even then, the court documents remain heavily redacted.
Next week he will finally face the real estate mogul behind the curtain, the man who pulled the strings.
“You don’t want to disappoint him. He doesn’t scream. Never raise his voice. He speaks to you in a way that almost suggests you know better, you can do better, you are better,” Liston said.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/trumps-rough-history-with-judge-juan-merchan-determining-his-indictment-fate Trump’s rough story with Judge Juan Merchan deciding the fate of his indictment