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‘Clear the courtroom:’ Judge explodes at Trump’s witness after prosecutors rest case at hush-money trial

The witness, pro-Trump attorney Robert Costello, couldn't rein in his disdain for either the proceedings or the judge.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The judge in Donald Trump’s hush-money case chastised Trump’s key defense witness on Monday for muttering under his breath during testimony.

After prosecutors rested their case Monday afternoon, the defense called Robert Costello, a pro-Trump attorney who prosecutors claim was part of a pressure campaign to keep Trump’s then-personal lawyer Michael Cohen from cooperating with authorities.

Costello tested the patience of New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan almost instantly, shaking his head and muttering in earshot of his microphone during sustained objections from prosecutors.

“Geez,” Costello expressed audibly after one objection.

Merchan finally acknowledged his antics.

“I’m sorry?” Merchan asked. Costello waved him off.

But after another utterance from Costello on a subsequent question, Merchan excused the jury and laid into the witness.

“Mr. Costello, I want to discuss proper decorum in my courtroom. When there is a witness on the stand, if you don’t like my ruling, you don’t say, ‘Geez,’” Merchan said firmly. “You don’t give me side eye and you don’t roll your eyes. Do you understand that?”

Costello agreed and briefly glared at the judge. The typically poised Merchan was about to bring the jury back in, when he got hot.

“Are you staring me down right now?” he shouted. “Clear the courtroom, please.”

Reporters filed out of the courtroom, which was locked for the next several minutes. In front of only counsel, Trump and the former president's entourage, the judge continued to chide Costello for his conduct.

"Sir, your conduct is contemptuous right now," Merchan said, according to court transcripts. "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. I will strike his entire testimony. Do you understand me?"

Defense lawyers agreed. Costello tried to get another word in.

"Can I say something, please?" he asked.

"No, no. This is not a conversation," Merchan said.

When reporters were allowed back inside, Costello stared blankly forward, slumped in the witness chair. His testimony continued after the fiery exchange.

The defense brought Costello, a fervent Trump advocate who has made numerous media appearances challenging this very case, to the stand to refute testimony from Cohen, who wrapped up his lengthy testimony earlier Monday. 

Prosecutors claim Cohen paid adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep her from telling her story about having sex with Trump in 2006. Cohen testified that he did so at Trump’s direction to protect his 2016 presidential hopes. 

Costello, who spoke to Cohen after his 2018 FBI raid as potential legal representation, told another story.

“Michael Cohen said numerous times that President Trump knew nothing about those payments, that he did this on his own,” Costello said. “He repeated that numerous times.”

Costello refuted Cohen’s assertion that he was part of a “pressure campaign” to keep Cohen from flipping on Trump.

“Did you ever put any pressure on Michael Cohen to do anything?” defense attorney Emil Bove asked.

“No,” he replied.

Costello’s testimony came shortly after prosecutors rested their case with Cohen, who admitted Monday on cross-examination that he stole at least $30,000 from the Trump Organization.

“Did you ever have to plead guilty to larceny?” defense lawyer Todd Blanche asked Cohen.

“No sir,” Cohen replied.

“Have you paid back the Trump Organization the money that you stole from them?” Blanche asked.

“No sir,” Cohen said.

Blanche was prodding for details regarding the supposed hush-money repayment scheme at the center of the case against Trump. Trump ended up paying Cohen out a total of $420,000, which included the $130,000 he owed Cohen for buying Daniels’ story. The sum also contained reimbursement for $50,000 that Cohen claimed to pay tech company Red Finch.

But Cohen said Monday that he actually only paid Red Finch around $20,000 in cash contained in a “small brown paper bag.” He said he didn’t tell former Trump executive Allen Weisselberg or Trump himself about that, but agreed to be reimbursed for the full $50,000 anyway.

“You did steal from the Trump Organization based upon the expected reimbursement from Red Finch, correct?” Blanche asked.

Cohen agreed that he had, and acknowledged that since his reimbursements were “grossed up” to offset income tax, the true number he stole may have been even higher than $30,000.

Meanwhile, Trump claims that he was merely paying Cohen for routine legal fees, which Cohen has vehemently denied throughout his testimony.

It was a theatrical twist to what’s been an otherwise winding cross-examination from Blanche, who began scrutinizing Cohen’s credibility Tuesday. He wrapped up the cross on Monday with more of the same, asking Cohen about his past lies and how much money he’s made as an anti-Trump media figure.

Cohen said that, between his podcasts and books, he’s made around $4.4 million talking about Trump. Still, Cohen testified that a conviction for Trump wouldn’t stand to benefit him financially.

“Whether Mr. Trump is ultimately determined innocent or guilty is not going to affect whether I speak about it or not,” he said, adding that it would actually be better if Trump is declared innocent “because it gives me more to talk about in the future.”

After Cohen’s testimony, Blanche moved for a dismissal of Trump’s charges, citing credibility concerns from Cohen.

“There is absolutely no evidence that the filings were false,” Blanche said after prosecutors rested. “The business records were not false… There is no way that the court should let this case go to the jury, relying on Mr. Cohen’s testimony. I don’t think that the people will disagree that without Mr. Cohen, there is no case.”

Merchan didn’t immediately rule, but appeared skeptical of Blanche’s argument.

“You said his lies are 'irrefutable,'” Merchan said. “You think he’s going to fool 12 New Yorkers into believing this lie?”

Monday started with a scheduling blow when Merchan revealed that trial would be extended into next week. Last week, the judge told counsel to prepare for closing arguments on Tuesday.

“It’s become apparent that we're not going to be able to sum up tomorrow,” Merchan said Monday.

With Memorial Day approaching, Merchan decided it best to save summations for after the long weekend. This means that the jury will likely start deliberating the fate of the former president next week. It's unlikely that Trump will testify. The defense indicated that it plans to wrap up its case on Tuesday with the rest of Costello's testimony.

Trump is standing trial on 34 counts of falsifying business records related to Cohen’s repayment, which prosecutors claim was part of a broader scheme to quell negative press surrounding Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Read daily transcripts of the Trump hush-money criminal trial here. Note there is a delay of several days before new transcripts are posted.

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Categories / Criminal, National, Politics, Trials

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