Prosecutors rest hush money case against Donald Trump as Michael Cohen wraps testimony

Molly Crane-Newman and Josephine Stratman, New York Daily News on

Published in Political News

NEW YORK — Manhattan prosecutors rested their case against Donald Trump on Monday — more than five years after they began investigating him and a month after the hush money trial began — during a dramatic day that saw both jurors and journalists booted from the courtroom amid a tense exchange between the judge and a witness for the ex-president.

That witness, Robert Costello, elicited a highly unusual rebuke from Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan when Costello mouthed off about the judge’s rulings in real time.

After asking jurors to step out, Merchan gave Costello a tensely worded warning about muttering “geez” and “ridiculous” under his breath. When the judge was met with more sass, he ordered his court officers to eject everyone else from the room.

“Are you staring me down right now?” Merchan at one point asked Costello.

“Clear the courtroom!” he then ordered.

Costello, a New York City attorney who advised Michael Cohen after the feds began investigating him in 2018 for issuing a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, was called as the second and potentially last witness to testify in Trump’s defense in a bid to discredit Trump’s former fixer.

Reporters, members of the public and a slew of Republicans and Trump associates who accompanied the defendant to court in his largest entourage yet — including disgraced former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik and convicted former leader of the Hells Angels Chuck Zito— were out of the courtroom for about five minutes.

“If you try to stare me down one more time, I’m removing you from the stand,” Merchan warned Costello once everyone was out of the room, according to a transcript.

Before Costello took the stand, the defense wound down its cross-examination of Cohen, Trump’s former fixer. Trump lawyer Todd Blanche peppered him with questions about his communications with Trump regarding the $130,000 payoff to Daniels and the profits he’s made during his bitter feud with the former president — eliciting an admission he stole from Trump’s company.

Cohen acknowledged that he effectively stole from the Trump Organization by requesting reimbursement for a $50,000 expense he paid out of pocket to rig an opinion poll in Trump’s favor when he had spent only $20,000.

That reimbursement came up during the same January 2017 conversation he had with Trump’s convicted former finance chief Allen Weisselberg regarding his expenses for paying Daniels, Cohen said.

“So you stole from the Trump Organization, right?” Blanche asked.

“Yes, sir,” Cohen replied.

Later, on redirect with prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, Cohen said he padded up the expense as he was upset at his diminished Christmas bonus — cut down to $50,000 from the usual $150,000 — and that fact he still hadn’t been paid back for dealing with Daniels.

“I was angered because of the reduction in the bonus, and so I just felt it was almost like self-help,” Cohen testified.

Cohen, 57, defied expectations he’d lose his cool with Trump’s lawyers. Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass announced prosecutors had finished presenting their case after calling 20 witnesses and presenting a mountain of documents when Cohen stepped down from the stand about 3:15 p.m.

In addition to Costello, Trump’s defense team called a paralegal from Blanche’s firm to verify phone records between Cohen and Costello. Toward the end of the day, Merchan asked Blanche if the defense was planning to call more witnesses and he shook his head “no” after shooting a glance at Trump, all but confirming the former president won’t take the stand after previously asserting otherwise. The judge will confirm with Trump before his lawyers rest their case.

Under questioning by Trump’s lawyer Emil Bove, Costello described meeting with a “suicidal” Cohen after the FBI swept through his office and hotel room in April 2018. Cohen previously told jurors that the attorney, a longtime associate of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, dangled a “back channel” to the White House in trying to pin him down as a client and that he didn’t trust him.

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


Under a grilling from Hoffinger on redirect, the prosecutor asked Costello about his many media appearances and what might have motivated him to retain Cohen.

“If you could land him as a client, that would be a big case for your firm, right?” Hoffinger asked.

“I suppose so,” Costello said.

“And would get you public exposure?”

“I guess it would.”

Trump, 77, has pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsification of business records, each tied to his alleged reimbursement to Cohen for hush money that prosecutors say he masked as compensation for legal services to disguise an underlying scheme to defraud the 2016 electorate. During the morning’s testimony, he was spotted conked out at the defense table, his face pointed toward the ceiling.

In lengthy comments to reporters outside the courtroom, Trump decried Merchan’s admonishment of his witness and again called the case as a sham.

“We paid a legal expense. You know what it’s marked down as? A legal expense,” Trump fumed.

During four days on the stand, Cohen, Trump’s former executive vice president at the Trump Organization and right-hand man for around 11 years, said he paid off Daniels less than two weeks out from the 2016 election as part of a conspiracy to win Trump the White House and was paid back the following year in monthly installments, fraudulently billing Trump for a “retainer,” as dictated by Weisselberg.

Later, Blanche — who sought to portray Cohen as a liar driven by money, fame and hatred of Trump — focused on how much money Cohen made between pleading guilty to breaking federal campaign finance laws in 2018 and publishing his first book, “Disloyal.” Cohen said that came to around $4 million.

Still, Cohen told Blanche he wasn’t financially motivated by a potential Trump conviction.

“It’s better if he’s not because it gives me more to talk about in the future,” he wryly said.

After a jam-packed five weeks, jurors are expected to get a weeklong break from the historic trial, partly due to the upcoming holiday weekend. The judge said he wanted to avoid a large gap between the panelists hearing closing arguments and starting to deliberate, estimating earlier Monday that summations would occur after Memorial Day.

Before adjourning for the day, Trump’s attorneys asked the judge to find him not guilty and Cohen not credible as a matter of law.

“There is no way that the court should let this case go to the jury relying on Cohen’s testimony,” Blanche said as Trump looked on intently.

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


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