Are You Staring Me Down Now?

May 20, 2024 - Culture

UPDATE: Donald Trump’s hush-money trial came to a sudden halt this afternoon when the defense’s second witness, lawyer Robert Costello, drew the ire of Judge Juan Merchant.

“Are you starting me down now?” Merchan demanded after castigating Costello for his demeanor on the stand. Jurors were not present for that scolding and moments later, Merchan ordered the entire courtroom cleared of spectators. The live video feed in the overflow room where other reporters are seated also cut out for the next few minutes. What transpired next between Merchan and the trial’s participants will have to wait for an official transcript.

Criminal defense lawyer Costello was testifying about his dealings with Michael Cohen after federal agents raided Cohen’s hotel room, home, office and bank safety deposit box in April of 2018. Costello met Cohen — Trump’s onetime lawyer and fixer — a week after the raid at the hotel where Cohen was staying, after a mutual acquaintance introduced them to discuss Cohen’s legal predicament.

“He was absolutely manic,” Costello testified. “He kept on pacing back and forth, left and right.”

But over several minutes of knotty testimony interrupted by objections, some of them sustained, Costello gave answers that were stricken by the judge. When another objection was sustained, Costello muttered, “Jeez.”

“I’m sorry?” Merchan said to Costello.

The testimony continued from there, and when Costello audibly huffed at another objection being sustained, Merchan excused jurors and said, “Counsel, let’s take a few minutes.”

He turned to Costello at that point and said, “I’d like to discuss proper decorum in my court.”

“If you don’t like my ruling you don’t say ‘jeez,’” Merchan said. “You don’t give me side-eye and you don’t roll your eyes.”

A moment later he cleared the room of all spectators. Costello later returned to the stand after several minutes and continued his testimony.

PREVIOUSLY: Prosecutors have rested their case in the Trump hush money trial in New York after its star witness, Michael Cohen, ended his testimony.

The defense called its first witness, Daniel Sitko, a paralegal in the firm of Todd Blanche’s Trump’s lead lawyer.

Still unclear is whether Trump himself will testify, but Blanche has indicated that the defense’s case will be short.

PREVIOUSLY: Michael Cohen finished three days of cross-examination today in the hush money trial of his former boss, Donald Trump, facing another barrage of questions from defense lawyer Todd Blanche about his credibility as the Manhattan District Attorney’s star witness. 

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Cohen admitted for a second time on the stand that he stole $30,000 from the Trump Organization by overcharging for expenses. He also said that after news broke in 2018 that he had paid $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels for her silence about a claim of a sexual liaison with Trump, he told several people in confidence that Trump knew nothing about the payment. 

“It would have been what I would have said at that time,” Cohen told defense lawyer Todd Blanche 

At one point Cohen was asked by Blanche if he ever filed taxes for the $420,000 that Trump paid him, allegedly as reimbursement for $130,000 in hush money. The reimbursement is the centerpiece of the DA’s case against Trump, because Cohen testified its purpose was to cover up the hush money payment in a phony legal retainer agreement using falsified business records.

An objection from a prosecutor, upheld by Judge Juan Merchan, derailed Blanche’s line of questioning about taxes.

Blanche opened today’s cross-examination of Cohen by asking “[H]ow many reporters have you talked to about what happened last week?” Cohen said a number of reporters have called him between Thursday and today, but “I did not talk about this case.”

The unprecedented trial of a former and possibly future U.S. president is winding down, and Cohen’s fourth day of testimony overall about his past work as Trump’s lawyer and self-styled “fixer” was his last. Prosecutors have no more witnesses scheduled unless they call one or more to rebut the defense’s case. 

But jurors won’t hear closing arguments until after the long Memorial Day holiday weekend, Merchan told prosecutors and defense lawyers, setting back a speedier timetable that looked possible last week. 

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

Before he brought jurors back into the courtroom, Merchan also ruled that a former federal elections commissioner recruited by the Trump’s defense team cannot offer detailed interpretations about campaign finance law because it’s the judge’s role to instruct jurors as it applies to the charges in the case. Cohen pleaded guilty in a federal case in 2018 to making an illegal, undeclared contribution to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in the form of the $130,000 to Daniels.

Cohen, on the stand today, said he was juggling several issues as the November 2016 election neared, including a real estate deal and an effort to help Trump’s daughter, Tiffany Trump, combat an apparent attempt to extort money from her. Blanche appeared to be suggesting that Cohen was too preoccupied with too many projects to be trusted in his testimony about the hush-money deal. 

Blanche has used cross-examination to try to show jurors that Cohen, a disbarred lawyer, is no more trustworthy under oath now than he was when he admittedly lied in other legal proceedings focused on Trump. 

In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s dealings in Russia. Last week, he testified that he lied to a federal judge in 2018 when pleading guilty to tax evasion and banking charges because he didn’t truly believe in his own guilt, and had accepted a plea deal with prison time after prosecutors threatened to indict his wife. Cohen said he also withheld critical information from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference. 

On Thursday, in one of the trial’s most dramatic moments, Cohen stumbled when confronted with a discrepancy between his testimony and a string of texts produced by Blanche. Cohen had said that in late October 2016 he reached Trump on a bodyguard’s phone to tell the presidential candidate that a deal was close to pay off porn star Stormy Daniels. But texts with the bodyguard, Keith Schiller, in the same time frame showed Cohen preoccupied with prank calls from a 14-year-old. Cohen was also texting the teen and threatening the youthful prankster with a visit from the Secret Service. 

Blanche today appeared to be aiming for a reprise of that gotcha moment, and he pressed Cohen on whether his ability to make money, since he can no longer practice law, depends on his public persona as Trump’s former fixer-turned-antagonist.

“That’s your name recognition, right?” Blanche asked, discussing efforts by Cohen to sell another book and a TV show — the latter called “The Fixer” — about his experiences. 

Cohen replied that his fame is result of “the journey I’ve been on.” 

Blanche retorted that Cohen has been attacking his former boss on a daily basis. “That’s part of your journey, right, sir?” Cohen said it is.

Cohen’s testimony continued to be dotted with repetitions of “don’t recall” and requests for Blanche to please repeat questions he professed not to understand. 

A grand jury empaneled by the DA indicted Trump last year on 34 charges of falsifying business records — invoices, checks and pay stubs — to disguise reimbursement of an illegal campaign contribution: the $130,000 that Cohen paid to Daniels. Prosecutors say the repayment scheme is a felony, and not just a misdemeanor business records case, because it constituted an illegal effort to influence the outcome of the election that vaulted Trump into the White House. 

Trump has denied having sex with Daniels. His lawyers have argued the non-disclosure agreement with her is a legal exercise of his right to protect himself, his family and his candidacy from public embarrassment. Their defense has focused more on the credibility of witnesses including Cohen and Daniels, and touched glancingly on the details of the indictment.

After Blanche finished, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Susan Hoffinger sought to clarify some of Cohen’s cross-examination testimony — a round of questioning that will continue after lunch. Over an objection from the defense, Hoffinger reminded jurors that Cohen had pleaded guilty in federal court to making the $130,000 illegal campaign contribution. 

“Are you actually on trial here?” Hoffinger asked Cohen rhetorically. 

PREVIOUSLY: Michael Cohen testified today that he stole $30,000 from the Trump Organization on his way out the door in early 2017 by overcharging the company as part of his reimbursement for hush-money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Cohen admitted as much on the stand last week, when he said the exit package he negotiated to help cover up the hush-money payment included an overcharge of $30,000 for another business expense.

But today, asked point blank by defense lawyer Todd Blanche if he had stolen from his former employer, Cohen said, “Yes, sir.”

“Have you paid back the Trump organization the money that you stole from them?” Blanche asked at another point.

“No sir,” Cohen replied.

Cohen said he claimed to have paid $50,000 out of pocket to a technology company called Red Finch. In fact, Cohen had only paid Red Finch $20,000 — all cash in a brown paper bag that he brought to Trump Tower to hand over to Red Finch’s CEO.

The exchange came near the end of Cohen’s cross-examination by Blanche, which lasted three days and wrapped up shortly before noon. On re-direct questioning by a prosecutor, more details about the theft came out.

Cohen said the service Red Finch provided was to boost Trump’s ranking in a CNBC online poll that asked people to name the greatest business leaders in U.S. history. Trump was upset, Cohen testified, because “he was polling towards the very very bottom.” Red Finch promised to improve Trump’s ranking with an “algorithm” and by purchasing IP addresses that would pass as individual poll participants, Cohen testified.

Trump reached No. 9 in CNBC’s poll but decided he still wouldn’t pay Red Finch’s $50,000 fee, Cohen testified. Cohen told Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Susan Hoffinger that after he paid $20,000, he claimed the difference and pocketed $30,000 because he was “angry” at having his annual holiday bonus cut. He agreed with Hoffinger that it was the wrong thing to do.

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