Defense Rests in Trump Trial After Combative Witness Slams Michael Cohen for ‘Lying’: Lawyers Squabble Before Judge Over Jury Instructions

The case is expected to go to the jury next week, with President Trump facing a felony rap and possible prison time if convicted.

Mark Peterson - Pool/Getty Images
President Trump appears in court with attorneys Emil Bove (L) and Todd Blanche (R) for his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21, 2024 at New York City. Mark Peterson - Pool/Getty Images

Testimony concluded in President Trump’s hush money trial on Tuesday without Mr. Trump taking the witness stand. The defense rested its case, after cross-examination of its witness, Robert Costello, had finished. The Judge dedicated the afternoon to the so-called charging conference, where prosecutors and the defense attorneys argue about the precise wording for the instructions the jury will be given before they go into deliberations. 

Mr. Trump arrived at court on Tuesday with a new entourage of what he calls his “surrogates.” They included some prominent conservative firebrands such as Florida’s former attorney general, Pam Bondi, and dietary supplements spokesperson and former White House aide Sebastian Gorka. Members of Congress included Senator Eric Schmitt of Missouri, Rep. Maria Salazar of Florida and Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas who was Mr. Trump’s White House physician. The Texas lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, was also there, along with the actor and comedian Joe Piscopo and Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. The actor, convicted felon and former Hells Angels leader Chuck Zito made a return appearance.

During a break, Mr. Trump told reporters, “This next couple of hours is very important.” If the jury finds Mr. Trump, who is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, guilty, the former president could face a prison sentence. Legal experts have said that prison is highly unlikely since Mr. Trump has no prior convictions, but the entire case is extraordinary and its course has been unpredictable. 

Regardless of the sentence, if found guilty Mr. Trump would be a convicted felon which is not only a badge of shame but also can make it much harder to get a loan, travel to certain countries, own a gun, get licensed for certain professions and, in some states, vote. Florida, where Mr. Trump resides, recently voted to restore voting rights for felons but the matter remains tied up in the courts.    

Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (C) speaks during a press conference while on a break from President Trump’s hush money trial outside Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21, 2024 at New York City. The defense has rested their case in former President Trump’s hush money trial in which he declined to testify in. Judge Juan Merchan says to expect summations and closing arguments in the criminal trial next week. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The criminal case, the first ever against a former US president, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, accuses Mr. Trump of directing his former personal lawyer and current nemesis, Michael Cohen, to make a $130,000 hush-money payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, to keep her from publicizing a one-time sexual encounter she claims to have had with Mr. Trump at a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe in 2006. The prosecution further accuses Mr. Trump of fraudulently disguising an alleged reimbursement to Cohen as legal expenses. Mr. Trump denies the charges and denies ever having had sex with Ms. Clifford. 

Over the course of four weeks, the prosecution called 20 witnesses. Mr. Trump’s attorneys only called two witnesses, Daniel Sitco, a paralegal who works for one of Mr. Trump’s defense attorneys, Todd Blanche, and who introduced a summary chart of phone calls between Cohen and Mr. Costello, an attorney who works for the law firm of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron.

Mr. Costello, a former federal prosecutor turned defense lawyer who had advised Cohen in 2018 after he was raided by the FBI, was the second witness. The purpose of his testimony was to portray Cohen as a liar. On Monday, Mr. Costello told defense attorney Emil Bove, “Michael Cohen said, numerous times, that President Trump knew nothing about those payments, that he did this on his own, and he repeated that numerous times.” 

But on Tuesday morning, his statements were questioned by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger. 

Actor and comedian Joe Piscopo returns to court during President Trump’s trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21, 2024 at New York City. Dave Sanders-Pool/Getty Images

“Do you have animosity against Michael Cohen? Yes or No?” Ms. Hoffinger asked the witness. 

“No,” Mr. Costello answered. 

“Did you go to the House of Representatives to testify?” she continued. 

“Yes,” Mr. Costello said. Last Wednesday, Mr. Costello testified on Capitol Hill before the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government where he denounced Cohen as an inveterate liar whose core contention that Mr. Trump personally ordered the hush-money payment to Ms. Clifford was false.

Michael Cohen leaves his apartment building on his way to Manhattan criminal court, May 13, 2024, at New York. AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, File

Court was off on Wednesday due to the presiding judge, Juan Merchan, overseeing Manhattan Mental Health Court, a progressive program that seeks to find alternatives to incarceration for offenders with mental health challenges. However, Mr. Cohen was to resume his testimony the following day, Thursday.

“You went there to publicly vilify Michael Cohen while he was in the middle of his testimony here?” Ms. Hoffinger asked. 

“I went there to testify,” Mr. Costello answered. 

“You went there to intimidate Michael Cohen during his testimony here,” Ms. Hoffinger said. 

Attorney Bob Costello holds up a book while talking to reporters after testifying before a grand jury investigating Donald Trump in New York, Monday, March 20, 2023.
Attorney Bob Costello talks to reporters after testifying before a grand jury investigating Donald Trump at New York, March 20, 2023. AP/Seth Wenig

“Intimidate Michael Cohen?” Mr. Costello asked. 

“Yep, that’s my question,” Ms. Hoffinger said. 

“Ridiculous, no,” Mr. Costello gasped. 

But emails Ms. Hoffinger presented to the jury, suggested that Mr. Costello has disliked Cohen for years. “I am in a golf tournament tomorrow early and again on Sunday. What should I say to this a—— ?” Mr. Costello wrote in 2018 to his law firm partner, Jeff Citron, referring to Cohen. “He is playing with the most powerful man on the planet.”

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger at the New York Supreme Court on November 17, 2022 at New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

“Do you want me to explain?” Mr. Costello asked the prosecutor, Ms. Hoffinger, about his derisive texts. 

“No,” Ms. Hoffinger answered.

After the tumultuous scene Mr. Costello caused in the courtroom on Monday, during which he challenged the judge by rolling his eyes at him and staring him down, leading Judge Merchan to threaten to throw him off the witness stand, Ms. Hoffinger tried to ask simple yes or no questions, and allow Mr. Costello, who constantly wanted to talk, as little chance to elaborate as possible. 

Ms. Hoffinger basically read email after email to the jury and asked him if he had written or received them. 

Prosecutors Susan Hoffinger and Joshua Steinglass at Manhattan Criminal Court on January 10, 2023 at New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

“That email certainly speaks for itself, does it not, Mr. Costello?” Ms. Hoffinger asked the witness. 

“Yes it does,” Mr. Costello said. 

Mr. Costello met Cohen in 2018, because Cohen was under investigation by the FBI and needed legal representation. Cohen’s life was collapsing around him as he found himself in the crosshairs of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which had made a criminal referral to the FBI about the hush-money payment and other violations, such as tax evasion. 

Mr. Costello, as other emails showed, offered his legal services and even sent him a retainer, which Cohen never signed. According to Cohen’s testimony and a flood of emails presented on Tuesday, Mr. Costello became a conduit between Cohen and the White House, which was also dealing with Mr. Mueller’s investigations, and he tried in vain to keep Cohen “in the fold.”

One of Mr. Costello’s 2018 had him writing to his law firm partner that, “Our issue is to get Cohen on the right page without giving him the appearance that we are following instructions from Giuliani or the President. In my opinion this is the clear correct strategy.” Mayor Giuliani was at the time serving as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer.

Barrett Blade (L), the porn performer and fourth husband of Stormy Daniels (R) attend the 2024 Adult Video News Awards at Resorts World Las Vegas on January 27, 2024 at Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ultimately, Cohen hired another lawyer and turned state’s evidence, much to Mr. Trump’s fury, but he still served 13 ½ months in federal prison.  

As harshly as Mr. Costello spoke of Cohen, calling him a “manic” and “liar,” his testimony may not have been particularly helpful to the defense, because the evidence in the emails overwhelmed Mr. Costello’s provocative testimony. 

After Mr. Costello was excused, the defense rested its case. The jury was sent home until Tuesday, May 28. The presiding judge, Juan Merchan, explained that “it’s always ideal or best not to break up summations.” In other words, he did not want to start the closing arguments for one party and then have to break for a long weekend until the next party could make theirs. 

Since this is an abbreviated week, with no court on Wednesday due to Manhattan Mental Health Court and no court on Friday, due to a conflict involving a juror, the judge decided to move the summations to next Tuesday, after Memorial Day. He expects them to take one day. The jury could begin deliberations as early as next Wednesday, May 29.    

Judge Juan Merchan presides over Donald Trump’s trial at Manhattan criminal court. Elizabeth Williams via AP

Before a jury is sent into deliberation, they are given instructions, and Judge Merchan went over time on Tuesday to discuss these instructions with the attorneys.  

For example, the defense asked the judge to include an instruction regarding bias against Mr. Trump, but the prosecution dismissed it as unnecessary. 

“We don’t think that this is necessary, this charge,” prosecutor Josh Steinglass said. “I don’t think instructing the jury that they shouldn’t hold bias against the defendant is not necessary — voir dire has satisfied this problem, I think.”

Defense attorney Emil Bove told the court that the case is extraordinary because Mr. Trump is a former president, and thus not a typical defendant.

Fox News reported on Monday that Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo was once a paid consultant to the Democratic National Committee. Department of Justice

One of the prosecutors arguing for the Manhattan district attorney, Matthew Colangelo, said, “No one is above the law.” 

“I understand what you mean when you say it’s an important case,” Judge Merchan said. “But what you’re asking me to do is to change the law, and I’m not going to do that.”

The judge took notes and reserved the right to contemplate. He will send final instructions to the attorneys by the end of Thursday.

Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Don Jr., who came to visit his father at the courthouse on Tuesday, called the hush-money case “insane” and “nonsense.”  

Donald Trump Jr. speaks during a press conference while on a break from President Trump’s hush money trial outside Manhattan Criminal Court on May 21, 2024 at New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

“Can you believe it? Like no one believes that this is real,” Mr. Trump Jr. told reporters outside the Manhattan criminal court. “It’s insane, and it has to stop.”

Outside the courtroom. his father pointed the finger, again, at President Biden.

“You heard who was doing all the talking,” Mr. Trump said, referring to Mr. Colangelo, the prosecutor, who used to work at the Justice Department, without mentioning him by name as that would violate his gag order. “This is all about Biden, who can’t campaign so he tried to injure his opponent or tried to hurt the opponent because they can’t win it fair and square. It’s lawfare.”

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