Trump Trial: ‘Contemptuous’ Defense Witness Returns to the Stand After Facing Judge’s Wrath

Mark Peterson/Reuters
Mark Peterson/Reuters

Even in the closing stages of Donald Trump’s hush money trial, there’s seemingly no end to the drama.

Defense witness Robert Costello—a former federal prosecutor called by Trump’s attorneys as they seek to undermine the credibility of the prosecution’s star witness, Michael Cohen—will be back on the stand Tuesday. His return comes the day after extraordinary scenes in the Manhattan courtroom that prompted Judge Juan Merchan to repeatedly rebuke Costello for his “contemptuous” behavior, even threatening to strike all of his testimony.

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After Cohen finished his fourth day of testimony, jurors heard from Costello—a lawyer who once advised Cohen and acted as a backchannel between Cohen and Trump’s White House in 2018.

Cohen is crucial to the proceedings because he made the $130,000 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. Prosecutors say the payment was intended to stop Daniels from speaking about a one-night stand she claims to have had with Trump, and that the scheme to buy her silence was supposed to protect his 2016 presidential campaign. They allege that Trump then tried to hide reimbursements to Cohen by listing the payments as legal fees.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records and denies having sex with Daniels.

During his testimony, Cohen implicated Trump in the scheme by alleging that Trump instructed him to kill Daniels’ story, telling him: “Just take care of it.” He also claimed that Trump was kept informed about the payment and authorized the allegedly unlawful reimbursement plan.

Trump’s defense lawyers have attacked Cohen’s credibility in the proceedings by portraying him as an admitted liar and convicted felon who is now hellbent on seeking revenge against his old boss. Part of their effort to sow doubt in jurors’ minds about Cohen’s reliability came with Costello’s time on the stand Monday—though it didn’t exactly go smoothly.

Costello used his testimony to claim that Cohen had previously told him he wasn’t aware that Trump had broken the law. Following the FBI raid on Cohen’s apartment in 2018 after he acknowledged paying Daniels, Costello said Cohen was “suicidal” and “very manic.”

“I explained to Michael Cohen that this entire legal problem he was facing would be resolved by the end of the week if he had truthful information on Donald Trump and cooperated with the Southern District of New York,” Costello said. He added that Cohen told him in response: “I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.”

But Costello’s testimony, which contradicted Cohen’s implications of Trump, was overshadowed by the angry dressing down he received from Judge Juan Merchan.

Costello became frustrated with the judge sustaining prosecutors’ objections, saying “jeez” out loud at one point and calling the entire exercise “ridiculous.” Merchan then ordered jurors out of the courtroom to give Costello a lesson in “proper decorum.”

“I’m the only one who can strike testimony in the courtroom,” Merchan said. “If you don’t like my ruling, you don’t give me side-eye and you don’t roll your eyes. Do you understand that?” Costello said he understood, but then proceeded to further anger the judge by staring at him. “Are you staring me down right now?” Merchan asked before promptly instructing journalists to leave the court.

Court transcripts later revealed that Merchan informed Costello his “conduct is contemptuous” during the telling-off. “If you try to stare me down one more time, I will remove you from the stand,” Merchan said. Merchan also informed Trump lawyer Emil Bove that he would be prepared to strike Costello’s “entire testimony” if the misbehavior continued.

Bove told the judge that the defense is not expecting to call any more witnesses following Costello, though a campaign finance expert, Bradley Smith, may be called to give testimony within strict limitations. The defense also has not yet definitively ruled out putting Trump on the stand, though it seems increasingly unlikely.

Closing arguments have been scheduled for May 28.

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