Trial turns testy as Trump lawyers try to pique fixer-turned-witness Cohen

Prosecution rests case, handing baton to defense team, but closing arguments unlikely until next week; judge threatens to throw out defense witness for giving bench side eye

Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan criminal court in New York, Monday, May 20, 2024. (Steven Hirsch/New York Post via AP, Pool)
Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan criminal court in New York, Monday, May 20, 2024. (Steven Hirsch/New York Post via AP, Pool)

NEW YORK — After approximately five weeks, 19 witnesses, reams of documents and a dash of salacious testimony, the prosecution against Donald Trump rested its case Monday, handing over to the defense before closing arguments expected next week.

Trump’s team immediately sought to undermine key testimony against the former president, who is accused of covering up hush money paid to a porn star over an alleged encounter that could have derailed his successful 2016 White House bid.

His attorneys called lawyer Robert Costello — who once advised star prosecution witness Michael Cohen before falling out with him — in an apparent attempt to puncture Cohen’s credibility.

But Costello’s start on the stand was shaky at best, as his dismissive tone provoked an angry response from Judge Juan Merchan.

Merchan chided Costello for remarking “jeez” when he was cut off by a sustained objection and, at another point, “strike it.” Merchan told him: “I’m the only one that can strike testimony in the courtroom. Do you understand that?”

“And then if you don’t like my ruling, you don’t give me side eye and you don’t roll your eyes.”

Merchan was about to bring the jury back in when he asked Costello, “Are you staring me down right now?” and then kicked out the press to further admonish him.

Members of the press and public stand outside the courtroom after being asked to leave by Judge Juan Merchan during former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court, Monday, May 20, 2024 in New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

“I’m putting you on notice that your conduct is contemptuous,” Merchan said, according to the transcript of the conversation that occurred when the press was out of the room. ”If you try to stare me down one more time, I will remove you from the stand.”

Costello didn’t return a message seeking comment Monday night.

Trump, speaking to reporters afterward, called the episode “an incredible display,” branding the proceedings “a show trial” and the judge “a tyrant.”

Extended quibbling among the two legal teams, along with the upcoming holiday weekend, means closing arguments that the judge had hoped could start Tuesday are now anticipated for next week.

It’s unlikely and risky, but the door remains open for Trump to take the stand in the criminal trial, the first ever of a former US president.

Experts doubt he will, as it would expose him to unnecessary legal jeopardy and forensic cross-examination by prosecutors — but his lawyer Todd Blanche has raised the prospect.

On Monday, Blanche finished his third day of questioning Cohen after hours of at times digressive, at other times bruising, exchanges.

Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court in New York, Monday, May 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, recounted last week how he kept Trump informed about $130,000 paid to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an alleged affair ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Trump’s lawyers set out to paint Cohen as a convicted criminal and habitual liar, recalling his time in prison for tax fraud and lying to Congress.

Blanche also probed Cohen’s loyalty to Trump and then to the prosecution, looking to show jurors that Cohen is self-serving and willing to go to great lengths to accomplish his aims.

Cohen told jurors earlier Monday that he stole from the Trump Organization after his 2016 holiday bonus was slashed to $50,000 from the $150,000 he usually received.

Cohen claimed to have paid $50,000 to a technology firm for its work artificially boosting Trump’s standing in a CNBC online poll about famous businessmen. Cohen said he gave the firm only $20,000 in cash in a brown paper bag, but he sought reimbursement from Trump for the full amount, pocketing the difference.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche cross examines Michael Cohen in Manhattan criminal court, May 14, 2024, in New York. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Cohen said he never paid the Trump Organization back. Cohen has never been charged with stealing from Trump’s company.

Blanche vied to goad Cohen, who has a reputation for a short temper that could have hurt him on the stand — but the witness largely maintained his composure.

Cohen’s story generally lined up with Daniels and David Pecker, the tabloid boss who said he worked with Trump and Cohen to suppress negative coverage during the Republican’s White House run.

After Blanche finished with him, the prosecution returned for redirect, with prosecutor Susan Hoffinger asking Cohen what the whole experience has meant for him.

“My entire life has been turned upside down,” Cohen said, genuine emotion in his voice. “I lost my law license, my financial security… my family’s happiness… just to name a few.”

Trump meanwhile has complained his 2024 election campaign for another White House term is being stymied by the weeks-long court proceedings, which he has to attend every day.

Former President Donald Trump speaks as he exits the courtroom during his trial at Manhattan Criminal court, Monday, May 20, 2024, in New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Pool Photo via AP)

He did so again Monday, complaining to journalists he’s “not allowed to have anything to do with politics because I’m sitting in a very freezing cold, dark room for the last four weeks. It’s very unfair.”

Calling the case politicized, a coterie of leading Republicans have stood in the wings behind him as he gives remarks to reporters outside the courtroom.

The growing list includes several lawmakers eyeing Trump’s vice presidential pick, including Ohio Senator JD Vance and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.

Yet despite the palace intrigue and courtroom drama, the charges ultimately hinge on financial records, and whether falsifying them was done with intent to sway the 2016 presidential vote.

When the jury begins deliberating, the often juicy testimony will likely linger, but they will also have stacks of documents to consider.

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