Donald Trump indictment sets up battle of heavyweight lawyers
Donald Trump’s battle with New York prosecutors has been playing out over American airwaves for months, with the former US president’s allies decrying what they claim is a “political witch-hunt” by a partisan district attorney’s office.
From Tuesday, however, the skirmishes that matter will take place inside a dilapidated courtroom in downtown Manhattan, between two heavyweights of the criminal bar.
Susan Necheles, who cut her teeth defending the likes of mobster “Benny Eggs”, is likely to face off against Susan Hoffinger, scion of a storied legal dynasty who was brought in by Democratic district attorney Alvin Bragg last year to bolster the team investigating Trump’s many alleged misdeeds.
The duo are well acquainted, having argued against each other in the same courtroom last year in a surprisingly cordial five-week tax fraud trial against the Trump Organization. That case ended in a criminal conviction, but landing a blow on the former president himself will depend on a legal theory neither lawyer would have had to argue on before.
Soon after Donald Trump is arraigned on Tuesday — in a process that usually lasts no more than 15 minutes — Necheles will probably file motions contesting the validity of the DA’s indictment, according to Joe Tacopina, who is also representing Trump in the case.
The $130,000 payment allegedly made by Trump to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels in 2016 “doesn’t equate to a crime, is not even close to a crime”, Tacopina told CBS on Friday.
The DA’s case relies on elevating the misdemeanour of falsifying business records — Trump allegedly recorded the payments as legal fees — to a felony, by proving that the transactions were designed to help his election campaign in violation of federal law.
Hoffinger and her team will also have to argue that the statute of limitations for the offence, which is two years in New York, was paused when Trump moved out of the state.
“There is a real defence on this, and it is a legal defence,” said one former federal prosecutor who knows Necheles and the case well. Tacopina, a TV commentator whose celebrity clients have included baseball star Alex Rodriguez, will continue to tour the studios and may deploy his rhetorical skills in court, but “Susan is going to be the brains behind this”, they added.
While the rag-tag group of lawyers defending Trump in other matters — some of whom have been penalised for wasting courts’ time with frivolous lawsuits — previously lacked national profiles, Necheles has a reputation as a “fearless and tenacious litigator”, according to William Devaney, a partner at Baker McKenzie and a former assistant US attorney.
Born to parents she described as “immigrants and migrants” — her mother is of Puerto Rican origin and her father of German Jewish descent — Necheles grew up in Massachusetts and attended the University of Rochester in upstate New York. She then enrolled in Yale law school where she edited the institution’s prestigious law journal.
Hoffinger, by contrast, “comes from a Brahmin criminal defence law family”, as one friend put it. Her father Jack worked for Frank Hogan, who reigned as Manhattan district attorney for 32 years and is the namesake for the office’s current address, One Hogan Place. Her brother Adam is a former federal prosecutor in the southern district of New York, while her sister Fran began as a public defender and now practises at the family firm. Fran’s husband Harvey Fishbein is also a prominent white-collar lawyer.
But both women command respect among their peers for the breadth of their experience.
Necheles started out working with Frederick Hafetz, a legend of New York’s white-collar bar, whose high-profile clients included a procession of Italian mobsters, a former Miss America and Lady Astor’s son.
She herself is no stranger to the city’s colourful characters, having defended Bronx senator Pedro Espada on federal theft charges and Democrat donor Jeremy Reichberg, who was convicted of bribing high-ranking police officers. Harvey Weinstein reportedly tried to hire Necheles – known for deploying “extremely creative arguments” – to fight the sexual assault allegations against him in 2019.
“She is totally fearless, she will stand up to the government and the judges,” said Kate Cassidy, a criminal defence lawyer at Morvillo Abramowitz, who worked with Necheles and defended liquor heir Clare Bronfman alongside her a few years ago.
Hoffinger, an Amherst College and Columbia Law School graduate, served in the Manhattan district attorney’s office from 1992 to 2000 under the legendary Robert Morgenthau, where there was “no getting around doing the grunt work”, according to a contemporary, and where even John F Kennedy Jr was forced to prove himself worthy.
Hoffinger then went into private practice with her family, before being brought in by Bragg last year, after the abrupt resignation of two senior prosecutors who were frustrated that the office was not pressing forward with a case against Trump.
In the months since, Hoffinger kicked the tyres on the DA’s legal theories, deploying a strategy she outlined in a 2018 interview, while practising as a defence lawyer.
“I start every case by asking: ‘what is the prosecutor thinking? How will he or she marshal the facts to try to prove the defendant guilty?’ Hoffinger said at the time.
“My objective is to reveal and drive home the weaknesses in the government’s case,” she added, before concluding: “One cannot over-prepare.”
While now making the case for the government, Hoffinger will “follow the tradition” of the Manhattan DA’s office in treating the defendant like any other, former colleagues said, avoiding a show trial. A lawyer who has worked for the Trumps called her “a class act”.
Necheles’ admirers on both sides of the aisle delivered a similar verdict. “I think she will approach this case just like any other case, she is really relentless and digs into the facts,” said one former colleague. “You are not going to see her on the morning shows.”