Star Trump Defense Witness Gets Into Confrontation With Judge

'Are you staring me down right now?' New York judge Juan Merchan asks before clearing the courtroom.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 20: Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears in court with attorneys Todd Blanche (L) and Emil Bove (R) during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal ... NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 20: Former U.S. President Donald Trump appears in court with attorneys Todd Blanche (L) and Emil Bove (R) during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 20, 2024 in New York City. Former U.S. President Donald Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first of his criminal cases to go to trial. (Photo by Steven Hirsch-Pool/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s defense team called only two witnesses: one was a paralegal who appeared on the stand for just a few minutes on Monday.

The other was Robert Costello. A longtime attorney to Rudy Giuliani, Costello sought to represent Michael Cohen during a critical period: when Cohen was debating whether he was to stay loyal to Trump or admit guilt and begin to cooperate with prosecutors.

Trump attorney Emil Bove hyped Costello’s testimony on Monday. Costello, Bove said, could impeach Cohen, he could show that Cohen committed perjury again, he could show that much of what the prosecution’s star witness had to offer was false.

But Costello left a different kind of impression. In a courtroom blow up that would have been more fitting for a mob trial than that of a former President, Costello expressed open contempt and hostility to Judge Merchan.

“You don’t give me side eye and you don’t roll your eyes,” Merchan scolded Costello after dismissing jurors for a break to address the issue. “Are you staring me down right now?”

After that, Merchan ordered the courtroom cleared. Security officers then removed all members of the press, but kept the entourage that Trump brought in — including a Hells Angels leader, members of Congress, Alan Dershowitz and others.

Costello was meant to offer the defense’s view of Michael Cohen to the jury. Instead of a liar who had agreed to tell the truth after pleading guilty in 2018, Costello sought to portray Cohen as an untrustworthy client, someone who he tried to help as an attorney but who rebuffed him and instead sought to spread lies about Donald Trump.

Off the bat, Merchan was skeptical about the relevance of Costello’s testimony. Before Costello took the stand, Merchan told attorneys that he would limit the testimony that Costello could provide on the “pressure campaign” that Trump supposedly waged on Cohen via Costello. Costello and Trump’s legal team deny that any pressure campaign took place.

As Merchan sought to enforce his ruling, Costello appeared increasingly enraged. After one objection that Merchan sustained, Costello grumbled. After another, he audibly said “geez,” causing a long, awkward pause in the courtroom.

It was an odd stance for a witness, even one called by the defense. A witness’s credibility is supposed to come in part from the perception of their relative neutrality; Costello’s behavior screamed that he was in Trump’s camp.

But it wasn’t until Costello began to try to openly usurp Merchan’s authority that testimony went completely off the rails.

After supplying an answer, Costello said, “strike that,” effectively moving to strike his own answer. It’s a power reserved only to judges, and Merchan responded immediately: he ordered the jurors to leave the courtroom.

After they departed, Merchan began to deliver a speech. It wasn’t clear until this point how much notice Merchan had taken of Costello’s behavior. From what Merchan said, it was clear that he had noticed every shrug, eye roll, “geez,” and murmur.

“Mr. Costello, I’d like to discuss proper decorum in my courtroom,” he said. “If you don’t like my ruling you don’t say, ‘jeez.’ And then you don’t say, ‘strike it.’ Because I’m the only one who can strike testimony in this courtroom.”

Merchan then added that Costello could not roll his eyes or give him “side eye” if he didn’t like the answer.

It was then that Costello apparently stared at Merchan. “Are you staring me down?” Merchan said incredulously. The judge then shouted for the courtroom to be cleared.

At that point, the video feed to the overflow room cut off. People screamed; journalists in the main room were quickly removed.

What happened in between remains unclear, and will be revealed once transcripts from the hearing are published later on Monday.

After a few minutes, when the feed was restored and access to the courtroom resumed, everyone was silent. One thing had changed: Costello no longer looked defiant, but, rather, extremely sheepish.

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