Trump Courtroom Plays Host to Nonstop Spectacle as Prosecution Rests

by Admin
Trump Courtroom Plays Host to Nonstop Spectacle as Prosecution Rests

NEW YORK — On a pivotal day in the first criminal trial of an American president, the courtroom threatened to spin out of control.

The prosecution’s star witness, Michael D. Cohen, admitted on the stand to stealing from former President Donald Trump’s company. Trump’s courtroom entourage included three supporters charged with felonies of their own. And the defense’s only real witness was so defiant that the judge, after excoriating him, cleared the courtroom.

The trial’s first five weeks featured dramatic descriptions of sex and scandal, and the final phase of testimony on Monday showed no signs of a letup, as the courtroom played host to a nonstop spectacle.

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The tension came to a head after the prosecution rested its case and the defense called its witness, Robert J. Costello, a lawyer who had once advised Cohen. The defense saw Costello as a foil to Cohen, Trump’s onetime personal lawyer and longtime henchman.

But the strategy may not have paid off: The judge promptly lost his patience with Costello, a prosecutor turned defense lawyer and a fixture in New York’s legal world. When Costello scoffed at one of the judge’s rulings — “jeez,” he said, before mumbling a retraction — the judge grew irate.

Excusing the jury, the judge, Juan M. Merchan, lectured Costello: “If you don’t like my ruling, you don’t say ‘jeez,’ and you don’t say ‘strike it,’ because I’m the only one who can strike testimony in court,” he said, adding, “Are you staring me down?”

He ordered the courtroom cleared, briefly ejecting reporters and other onlookers, while allowing Trump’s supporters to remain. When those told to leave did so, according to a transcript, he told Costello that his conduct was “contemptuous” and said, “If you try to stare me down one more time I will remove you from the stand,” adding, to the defense lawyers, “I will strike his testimony, do you hear me?”

The explosion overshadowed the performance from Cohen, who on his fourth and final day on the stand fended off a fusillade of attacks from the defense.

He was the only witness to offer firsthand evidence directly linking Trump to the records that underpin the charges against him. Trump, he said, approved a plan to falsify the records to cover up a sex scandal involving a porn actor.

During Monday’s cross-examination, Trump’s lead lawyer assailed Cohen’s credibility, painting him as a pathological liar obsessed with taking down the former president. But Cohen maintained his composure, while some jurors seemed to lose focus as they shifted in their chairs.

And when prosecutors received a second opportunity to question Cohen, they sought to blunt much of the impact of the cross-examination.

“Are you charged with any crimes in this case?” a prosecutor, Susan Hoffinger, asked him. “No, ma’am,” Cohen replied, explaining that he was there merely as a “subpoenaed witness.”

Yet Cohen, the 20th and final person to take the stand for the prosecution, was not just any witness. He illustrated much of the prosecution’s case as no one else could, harmonizing disparate facts to portray Trump as a criminal.

Cohen took the stand Monday amid a uniquely Trumpian display, as an eclectic entourage of the former president’s supporters — several with legal troubles of their own — packed the courtroom.

The group of more than a dozen included not only Republican lawmakers and Alan Dershowitz, the high-profile lawyer, but also a legal adviser to Trump who is under indictment in Arizona, Boris Epshteyn, and Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner whom Trump pardoned for federal felony charges. And there was Chuck Zito, a former leader of the New York chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, a man with jet black hair in an Elvis-style swoop who had spent years in prison on drug charges.

They swept into the courtroom to back up Trump as his face-off with his former fixer and current nemesis continued.

But that was hardly the end of the fireworks. When Costello took the stand, he sought to convince the jury that Cohen was a no-good liar.

He recalled their first meeting in spring 2018, after the FBI had searched Cohen’s home and office amid an investigation into the hush-money deal. While Cohen had testified that Costello was part of a “pressure campaign” by Trump’s allies, Costello said on Monday that Cohen had been desperate for help.

“My life is shattered,” Costello recalled the former fixer telling him before asking, “What’s my escape route?”

Costello testified that he had told him he could cooperate with the government, but Cohen said he had nothing incriminating to offer.

Costello recalled that Cohen said at the spring 2018 meeting, “I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.”

Amid a chorus of objections from Hoffinger — most of which the judge sustained — Costello and Trump both shook their heads in apparent frustration.

Leaving court for the day, Trump praised Costello, but called Merchan a “tyrant” and the trial a “disaster.”

Costello, who will continue his testimony Tuesday, was preceded by Cohen himself, who sat through another fierce round of questioning from the defense.

Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, ventured toward the heart of the case: Trump’s reimbursement of Cohen for his hush-money payment to the porn actor, Stormy Daniels. Cohen’s $130,000 payment on the eve of the 2016 presidential election silenced her account of a sexual rendezvous with Trump that had threatened to derail his campaign.

In return, Cohen was paid $420,000 — an amount that he said included the hush money, a bonus, money for taxes and $50,000 to repay a tech company in an unrelated matter. But when pressed by Blanche, Cohen acknowledged that he had pocketed more than half the money earmarked for the tech company, RedFinch.

“You stole from the Trump Organization, is that right?” Blanche asked.

“Yes, sir,” Cohen replied.

Blanche also emphasized how much money Cohen has reaped from his attacks on his former boss and mentor, Trump, suggesting that his testimony was motivated by greed, not truth-telling. Cohen has written two books and is considering a third, and has profited handsomely from a podcast. He has even said he might run for Congress.

But when Blanche suggested that a conviction would complete Cohen’s revenge plot, Cohen corrected him, at least on the economics.

He said it would be better if Trump escaped unscathed, because “it gives me more to talk about in the future.”

Blanche sought to finish the crucial exchange with a flourish, returning to his claim last week that Cohen had lied on the stand about speaking to Trump in late October 2016 about the hush-money deal. But Cohen forced him to end with a whimper, not a bang.

“No doubt?” Blanche asked Cohen about his recollection of speaking to Trump.

“No doubt,” Cohen replied, capping his cross-examination.

There is no way of knowing what the jury thinks of Cohen, whose past lies and misdeeds were hardly a secret — prosecutors warned the jury to expect an outsize personality with a heavy load of baggage. And their verdict is not imminent. Merchan scheduled closing arguments for May 28, after which jurors might begin deliberations.

On Monday, when Hoffinger, the prosecutor, had the opportunity to question Cohen again, she sought to smooth some of his testimony’s rougher edges.

To underscore the idea that Trump approved of Cohen’s conduct, she produced a text message from one of Trump’s lawyers, who expressed appreciation for Cohen’s telling the media — he now says falsely — that he had paid off Daniels on his own initiative.

“Client says thank you for what you do,” the text message read, appearing to refer to Trump.

She also asked Cohen whether he had been wrong to steal from the Trump Organization when seeking reimbursement for the technology firm’s work. Cohen agreed that he had been.

Finally, Hoffinger returned to the records that the prosecution says Trump faked to conceal the hush-money deal. Trump, who faces probation or up to four years in prison, is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, one for each document related to his reimbursement of Cohen in 2017: 11 checks to Cohen (most of which Trump signed), 11 invoices submitted by Cohen and 12 entries in Trump’s ledger.

The documents all referred to a “retainer agreement,” implying that Cohen received the money for ordinary expenses. While Blanche highlighted a variety of legal assignments Cohen performed for the Trump family around this time, Hoffinger focused intently on specific sums and records.

“Did the $420,000 that you received in 2017 have anything to do with legal services you provided in 2017?” she asked Cohen. He bluntly replied: “No.”

“When you submitted each of your 11 invoices,” she then asked, “was that true or false?”

“False,” he confirmed.

And the check stubs that reflected a supposed retainer?

“False,” he told the jury.

Hoffinger also asked Cohen to assess the impact of his falling-out with Trump, who had been the focus of his existence for years.

“My entire life has been turned upside down,” he said.

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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