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Judge in Trump's hush money trial threatened to throw witness out of court for behaviour on stand

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The judge in Donald Trump's hush money trial cleared the courtroom of reporters Monday and then threatened to remove the defence's witness from the trial altogether because of his behaviour on the stand, a court transcript later showed.

Judge Juan M. Merchan told Robert Costello, a former federal prosecutor, that his conduct was “contemptuous right now."

Costello aggravated Merchan repeatedly in his testimony by making comments under his breath and continuing to speak after objections were sustained — a signal to witnesses to stop talking. At one point, Costello remarked “jeez” when he was cut off by an objection. He also called the whole exercise “ridiculous.”

“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.

"The fact that I had to clear the courtroom and that the court officers, including the captain, had great difficulty clearing the courtroom, and that there was argument back and forth between the press and including counsel for the press, goes to why I had to clear the courtroom in the first place," Merchan told Costello. “And that is, sir, your conduct is contemptuous right now.”

When he brought the press back in, Costello's testimony continued and it will resume Tuesday. The defence is using him in an effort to attack the credibility of Trump attorney-turned-adversary Michael Cohen.

Trump's lawyers also pressed Merchan to stop the case from going to the jury and throw out the charges after prosecutors concluded their presentation of evidence. He didn't immediately rule on the request, which came at the end of a heated day that also included the prosecution’s star witness admitting to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from Trump’s company.

After jurors left for the day, defence attorney Todd Blanche told the judge that prosecutors failed to prove their case and that it should be thrown out immediately. Blanche beseeched the judge to “not let this case go to the jury relying on Mr. Cohen’s testimony.”

Todd Blanche, at podium, cross examines Michael Cohen on the witness stand in Manhattan criminal court. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

The judge appeared unmoved by the argument, asking the defence attorney whether he believed that “as a matter of law, this person’s so not worthy of belief that it shouldn’t even be considered by the jury?”

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

Cohen was the last witness — at least for now — for prosecutors, who are trying to prove that Trump sought to bury unflattering stories about himself and then falsified internal business records to cover it up as part of a scheme to illegally influence the 2016 presidential election. The defence has painted Cohen as a media-obsessed liar who is on a revenge mission aimed at taking down Trump.

The defence called Costello because of his role as a Cohen antagonist and critic in the years since their professional relationship splintered in spectacular fashion.

Costello had offered to represent Cohen soon after the lawyer’s hotel room, office and home were raided and as Cohen faced a decision about whether to remain defiant in the face of a criminal investigation or to cooperate with authorities in hopes of securing more lenient treatment.

Costello testified that Cohen told him Trump “knew nothing” about the $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels that's at the center of the case.

“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,” Costello told jurors.

Trump lawyer Emil Bove told the judge that the defence does not plan to call any other witnesses after Costello, though they may still call campaign-finance expert Bradley A. Smith for limited testimony. They have not said definitively that Trump won’t testify, but that’s the clearest indication yet that he will waive his right to take the stand in his own defence.

Back on the witness stand for a fourth day, 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.

"So you stole from the Trump Organization," Blanche asked.

"Yes, sir," Cohen replied. Cohen said he never paid the Trump Organization back. Cohen has never been charged with stealing from Trump's company.

Cohen is a key witness, but also a complicated one. He admitted on the witness stand to a number of past lies, many of which he claims were meant to protect Trump. Cohen also served prison time after pleading guilty to various federal charges, including lying to Congress and a bank and engaging in campaign-finance violations related to the hush money scheme. And he has made millions of dollars off critical books about the former president, whom he regularly slams on social media in often profane terms.

But when pushed by Blanche, Cohen stood by his recollection of conversations with Trump about the $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels that's at the center of the case.

“No doubt in your mind?” Blanche asked about whether Cohen specifically recalled having conversations Trump about the Daniels matter. No doubt, Cohen said.

 

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

After more than four weeks of testimony about sex, money, tabloid machinations and the details of Trump's company recordkeeping, jurors could begin deliberating as soon as next week to decide whether Trump is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president.

The charges stem from internal T rump Organization records where payments to Cohen were marked as legal expenses, when prosecutors say they were really reimbursements for Daniels' hush money payment.

Trump has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers say there was nothing criminal about the Daniels deal or the way Cohen was paid.

"There's no crime," Trump told reporters after arriving at the courthouse Monday. "We paid a legal expense. You know what it's marked down as? A legal expense."

Trump's allies, including several who joined him at the courthouse Monday, quickly seized on Cohen's admission on the witness stand. Former Trump administration official Kash Patel told reporters that Monday marked the first time in six weeks of trial proceedings that “we finally have a crime" — Cohen stealing money from the Trump Organization.

“We also have a victim. That victim is Donald J. Trump,” Patel said.

Blanche grilled Cohen on Monday about his initial public denials that Trump knew about the Daniels payoff. After The Wall Street Journal reported in January 2018 that Cohen had arranged the payout to the porn actor more than a year earlier, Cohen told journalists, friends and others that Trump had been in the dark about the arrangement

Donald Trump, left, during his possible 2012 U.S. presidential run, and attorney Michael Cohen. (Jim Cole/AP Photo)

He did not change his account until after federal authorities in April 2018 searched Cohen's home, office and other locations tied to him. Four months later, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations and other charges and told a court that Trump had directed him to arrange the Daniels payment.

Known for his hot temper, Cohen has remained mostly calm on the witness stand despite sometimes heated interrogation by the defence about his misdeeds and the allegations in the case.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg's office is expected to rest its case once Cohen is off the stand, but prosecutors would have have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses if Trump's lawyers put on witnesses of their own. Judge Juan M. Merchan, citing scheduling issues, says he expects closing arguments to happen May 28, the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

Defence lawyers said they have not decided whether Trump will testify. And Trump did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about whether his lawyers have advised him not to take the stand. Defence attorneys generally are reluctant to put their clients on the witness stand and open them up to intense questioning by prosecutors, as it often does more harm than good.

Trump's lawyers have said they may call Bradley A. Smith, a Republican law professor who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to the Federal Election Commission, to refute the prosecution's contention that the hush money payments amounted to campaign-finance violations. But the judge has limited what Smith can address.

Richer reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Jill Colvin in New York and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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