Prosecutors rest their case against Donald Trump in dramatic day of testimony

May 21, 2024
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Prosecutors rested their case against Donald Trump on Monday after another dramatic day of testimony from his former lawyer Michael Cohen, while the judge presiding over the trial ripped into one of the former president’s witnesses for disrespectful behavior.

State Judge Juan Merchan briefly booted the public from the New York City courtroom after he scolded witness, defense attorney Robert Costello, outside the presence of the jury. Costello had visibly and audibly reacted to the prosecution’s objections and Merchan’s rulings.

“I’d like to discuss proper decorum in my courtroom. As a witness in my courtroom, if you don’t like my rulings, you don’t say, ‘Jeez,’” Merchan told Costello. “You don’t give me side eye, and you don’t roll your eyes.”

Costello said he understood, and Merchan asked whether he was trying to stare him down before he ordered the courtroom cleared. Reporters and others were forced to leave the courtroom, while Trump and his supporters who’d joined him for the day, including Alan Dershowitz, a lawyer not involved in the case, remained in the room.

The court transcript shows the judge told Costello: “I’m putting you on notice that your conduct is contemptuous. If you try to stare me down one more time, I will remove you from the stand.” The judge also said he could strike Costello’s testimony from the record.

Costello asked if he could say something and the judge said, “No. This is not a conversation.”

Reporters and the public were let back in after the exchange.

Costello is a veteran New York criminal defense attorney who represented Rudy Giuliani and whom Cohen had discussed the possibility of hiring at one point. Cohen never retained him, and the pair have since trashed each other publicly.

Trump said after court that he’d “never seen anything like that in my life” and called Merchan a “tyrant.”

Costello was the second defense witness called by Trump, following testimony from a paralegal in defense attorney Todd Blanche’s office about Cohen’s phone records.

Despite Trump’s pretrial claim he would “absolutely” testify in the case — the first criminal trial of a former president — it seems unlikely he will take the stand. Blanche told Merchan earlier in the day that his side planned to call the paralegal and possibly two brief witnesses before it rested itself. The first defense witness was the paralegal.

The door was still slightly ajar for Trump to change his mind. Another of his attorneys, Emil Bove, told Merchan at the end of the day that they had no other witnesses after Costello but that that was subject to change.

Cohen, meanwhile, finished his testimony in dramatic fashion — he admitted he conned Trump and his company out of money while also maintaining Trump signed off the hush money payment at the heart of trial.

Blanche began his questioning of Cohen on Monday by focusing on the period around when Cohen paid adult film actor Stormy Daniels $130,000 to buy her silence on Trump’s behalf. Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and self-described “fixer,” spoke to Trump twice on Oct. 26, 2016, the day he moved money to the account he was using to pay Daniels.

Blanche suggested other issues were going on at the time that consumed Cohen’s attention. Cohen acknowledged he was also busy trying to close a $7 million deal involving taxi medallions and an extortion threat involving Trump’s daughter Tiffany. He said he spoke to Tiffany Trump twice on Oct. 25.

Asked whether he discussed the situation with Tiffany Trump with her father in the Oct. 26 calls, Cohen said that he didn’t and that the calls were focused on Daniels. Asked on redirect examination by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger whether he’d been “too busy in October 2016 to get Trump’s approval on the Stormy Daniels payment,” Cohen replied, “No, ma’am.”

Blanche had continued questioning Cohen for about two hours in the morning, including about another matter he said Trump repaid him for in addition to the Daniels sum — $50,000 Cohen said he’d paid to end a dispute with a technology company called Red Finch. The reimbursements were “grossed up” — doubled — to spare Cohen from taking a tax hit.

Cohen said the bill related to efforts to fix a CNBC poll on the most famous businessmen of the past century. Cohen said Trump didn’t want to pay because despite the company’s efforts, he placed only ninth on the list. CNBC didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

Blanche asked Cohen whether he actually paid Red Finch $50,000, and he acknowledged he’d paid the company only about $20,000. Asked whether that meant he “stole from the Trump Organization,” Cohen said, “Yes, sir.”

Hoffinger asked him why he’d done so, and Cohen said it was because he was “angry” that Trump had slashed his annual bonus in 2016, despite his work getting salacious stories about him elect killed. “It was almost like self-help,” Cohen said.

Hoffinger also pushed back against what had been Blanche’s most dramatic line of questioning Thursday, when he challenged Cohen about his account of Trump’s signing off on the Daniels deal on Oct. 24, 2016, after Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller put him on the phone.

Blanche noted that Cohen said he got Schiller on the phone at 8:02 p.m. to speak to Trump about “the Stormy Daniels matter and the resolution of it.” Blanche said that Cohen had reached out to Schiller at 7:48 p.m. for help with a prank caller who’d been vexing him and that Schiller had texted Cohen to “call me” at 8:02.

Blanche pointed out that the call lasted 96 seconds and that at 8:04 p.m., Cohen texted Schiller the phone number of the teenage prankster; he called Cohen’s claim that he spoke to Trump in that period “a lie.” Cohen insisted he did speak to Trump but said he may have also mentioned the teen to Schiller.

On Monday, Hoffinger showed the jury a picture of Trump with Schiller at 7:57 p.m., when they were leaving a campaign rally, showing they were together at about the time of the call.

Cohen said he spoke to Trump about Daniels about 20 times. Asked whether he had any doubt he’d gotten final sign-off for the payment from him, he answered, “No, ma’am.”

On cross-examination, Cohen acknowledged doing some legal work for Trump in his family in 2017 and also went into detail about the roughly $4 million he made doing legal and consulting work for others the same year while often doing little actual work. Cohen has acknowledged he was able to pull in the lucrative contracts thanks to his position at the time as the president’s personal attorney. Cohen told Blanche the money was the most he’d ever made in his life.

Following live updates from the trial

Costello, meanwhile, testified about the first time he met with Cohen in April 2018, after the FBI had raided Cohen’s home. “He was absolutely manic,” Costello said, and he was talking about how he needed an “escape route.” He said Cohen also told him that Trump had nothing to do with the Daniels payment.

Cohen had testified in his direct examination that he lied to Costello because he didn’t trust him. Costello’s cross-examination will continue Tuesday.

At the start of court Monday, Merchan announced that closing arguments, which he had tentatively scheduled to begin Tuesday, would be pushed back a week because of the holiday weekend. They’re now tentatively scheduled for May 28.

Trump looked noticeably upbeat and animated Monday morning as two rows of prominent allies sat behind him in court.

The day ended with Blanche asking Merchan to dismiss the case, arguing prosecutors hadn’t met their burden of proof, in part, he argued, because Cohen can’t be trusted. Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo contended prosecutors had proven their case with evidence that included witness testimony and documents. Merchan said he’d rule on the motion later.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office presented its case with testimony from 20 witnesses over 15 days.

Cohen, 57, was a key witness — the only one to directly tie Trump to the alleged scheme to falsify business records.

Cohen paid Daniels the $130,000 in return for a nondisclosure agreement barring her from talking about her claim of having had a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier after they met at a celebrity golf tournament. Trump denies her claim.

Cohen said Trump authorized the deal and assured him he’d pay him back.

Prosecutors say Trump did so in a series of payments falsely recorded as legal expenses to conceal the real reason for them. He was has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records.

Prosecutors had made it clear to jurors in his direct examination that Cohen had a track record of lying publicly, and they elicited testimony about his 2018 guilty pleas to various criminal charges, including some related to the Daniels payment and another of lying to Congress. Cohen said he’d lied to protect his then-boss, Trump.



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