Takeaways from a tense Day 19 of the Trump hush money trial

The prosecution rested their case against Donald J. Trump on Monday in the former president’s hush money trial, which is barreling toward a conclusion as soon as next week.

Michael Cohen’s testimony finally wrapped up Monday after four days – and 17 hours – on the witness stand as the final witness in the prosecution’s case alleging that Trump falsified business records when he reimbursed Cohen for the hush money payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in the final days of the 2016 campaign.

It wasn’t long after the defense began its case on Monday for things to get heated – Judge Juan Merchan admonished a witness for the defense, Robert Costello, and threatened to remove him from the stand after he audibly complained when the judge sustained objections to the questions he was being asked.

Merchan even cleared the courtroom of the press briefly after dressing down Costello.

It was an unexpectedly contentious moment for a trial that is quickly nearing a close. While the defense appears likely to rest its case on Tuesday, Merchan said he’s planning to have closing arguments next Tuesday, May 28, out of concern with having a four-day weekend for the jury when it could be deliberating (court is dark on Friday because of a juror’s travel, and Monday is Memorial Day).

Regardless of the break, the Trump hush money trial is near its end – and roughly a week away from being in the hands of the jury. Here are the takeaways from Day 19:

Prosecution rests

Prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office rested their case Monday afternoon after calling 20 witnesses over the course of 15 days, including Cohen, Daniels, former Trump aide Hope Hicks and ex-publisher of the National Enquirer David Pecker.

The trial started on April 15 with jury selection, and the prosecution’s first witness, Pecker, was called a week later on April 22.

Cohen was the key witness, spending more than 17 hours on the witness stand over four days before wrapping up on Monday. He testified in detail, accusing his former boss of directing him to pay Daniels’ attorney in October 2016 and approving of the reimbursement plan at the heart of the criminal case.

Under cross-examination, Trump attorney Todd Blanche sought to poke holes in Cohen’s credibility, alleging that he made up conversations where he said Trump directed him to pay Daniels.

Trump’s former fixer’s testimony may be the key in determining how the jury ultimately rules on the case. But over the course of roughly a month, prosecutors also introduced a host of evidence to try to corroborate his allegations that Trump directed Cohen’s repayment, through both expert witnesses and documents.

Defense witness infuriates the judge, who clears courtroom

Trump’s attorneys called Costello as a way to try to rebut Cohen’s testimony about the pressure he was receiving in 2018 when the FBI searched his home and office.

Costello advised Cohen in the weeks after the search, though Cohen did not sign a retainer agreement and did not pay Costello, who touted in email communications his close connections with Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor also joined Trump’s legal team in 2018.

Costello described his initial 2018 meeting with Cohen, in which he said Cohen told him, “I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.”

But once on the stand, Costello quickly got on the wrong side of the judge, speaking over Merchan as the judge sustained objections in response to questions from Trump attorney Emil Bove.

Then Costello began audibly protesting the sustained objections. “Ridiculous,” he could be heard saying while the attorneys approached the judge after one objection. He later let out an audible “jeez” following the judge’s ruling.

After another sustained objection, Costello let out an audible sigh and rolled his eyes, side glancing at the judge.

The judge then asked the jury to step out of the courtroom. Once jurors left, Merchan said, “I want to discuss proper decorum in my courtroom.”

“When there’s a witness on the stand, if you don’t like my ruling, you don’t say ‘jeez,’” Merchan said to Costello. “You don’t give me a side eye and you don’t roll your eyes,” Merchan said, his voice showing his anger.

When Costello held a long glare at the judge, Merchan asked, “Are you staring me down?”

The judge then cleared the courtroom of the media, who were held in the hallways for several minutes.

Inside the courtroom, Merchan threatened to remove Costello from the stand and strike his testimony.

“I’m putting you on notice that your conduct is contemptuous,” Merchan said to Costello, according to a transcript. “If you try to stare me down one more time, I will remove you from the stand.”

Costello tried to explain: “Can I say something, please?”

“No. No,” Merchan responded. “This is not a conversation.”

Once the jury and the press were let back inside, Bove’s questions continued without incident, though the judge did urge Costello after several objections to just answer the question that had been asked and not elaborate further.

Costello will be back on the stand when court resumes at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, under cross-examination by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger.

Trial endgame comes into focus

Trump’s side began its defense case Monday afternoon – and the former president’s lawyers appear likely to rest on Tuesday.

The defense first called a paralegal to introduce call records between Cohen and Costello, before Costello took the stand. He’s expected to be off the stand by mid-morning Tuesday, and Trump’s attorneys said that – as of now – they don’t plan to call any other witnesses after him.

That would mean that Trump does not plan to testify in his own defense, although the judge noted that the plans from Trump’s team could always change.

Trump’s team had also planned to call a campaign finance expert, but Merchan limited the expert’s testimony, which apparently caused Trump’s lawyers to change their mind.

Merchan could have pushed to have closing arguments this week and give the case to the jury – but that left open a likely possibility that the jury would begin deliberations only to have a four-day weekend for Memorial Day (one of the jurors has a flight Friday so Merchan, has already said court will be dark that day).

Instead, Merchan said he expects to have closings next Tuesday. Once the defense rests its case, he will hold a conference with the two parties to discuss the instructions the judge will give to the jury before deliberations.

As a result, the trial could be dark for a week, although Merchan still has not said what will happen on Thursday.

Cohen admits he stole from Trump Org.

Cohen admitted in the final stretch of cross-examination Monday that he stole $60,000 from the Trump Organization by telling then-Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg he needed to be reimbursed for a payment he made on Trump’s behalf to a tech company.

Cohen said he had told various prosecutors about this, prompting Blanche to question why he had never been charged with larceny. Trump was engaged throughout this line of questioning, smirking when Cohen admitted to stealing.

Hoffinger touched on the theft briefly during redirect examination to confirm that Cohen knew stealing was wrong. Cohen called it “self-help” because he was angry Trump shorted him on his bonus that year.

“I just felt it was almost like self-help. I wasn’t going to let him have the benefit this way as well,” Cohen said.

“But you admitted on cross that it was wrong,” Hoffinger asked.

“It was,” Cohen said.

Cohen also acknowledged on cross-examination that he has a financial stake in the outcome of Trump’s trial.

“I talk about it on my podcasts, I talk about it on TikTok, and they make money, and that’s how I was viewing your question, whether Mr. Trump is ultimately determined innocent or guilty is not going to affect whether I speak about it or not,” he said.

Asked if he would make more money if Trump is found guilty, Cohen said: “It’s better if he’s not, for me, because it gives me more to talk about in the future.”

Hoffinger questioned Cohen for less than an hour on redirect examination midday Monday, hitting points to clarify what prosecutors felt Blanche might have muddied over three days of questioning Trump’s former fixer.

Cohen made clear that he had no doubt that Trump told him to work out his reimbursement with Weisselberg and that Trump gave him approval to make the payment to Daniels.

“Would you have paid Stormy Daniels the $130,000 had Mr. Trump not signed off?” Hoffinger asked Cohen on redirect examination.

“No, ma’am,” Cohen said.

Hoffinger also replayed a recorded phone call between Cohen and Daniels’ former lawyer Keith Davidson from 2018.

Cohen can be heard saying, “And I can’t – I can’t even tell you how many times he said to me, you know, ‘I hate the fact that we did it.’ And my comment to him was, ‘But every person that you’ve spoken to told you it was the right move.’”

“He” is Trump, Cohen testified, saying, “I was referring to the payment to Keith Davidson that I made on behalf of Mr. Trump for the Stormy Daniels matter for the nondisclosure agreement.”

Cohen said that his life had been upended by the situation with Trump.

“I lost my law license, my businesses, my financial security,” Cohen said. “My family’s happiness, which was probably paramount, just to name a few.”

Blanche, in another round of questioning, clarified with Cohen that he had also pleaded guilty to tax crimes unrelated to Trump and any felony would get a New York lawyer disbarred. Still, Cohen said he largely blames Trump.

Hoffinger later tried to distance Cohen’s federal guilty plea from his testimony at this trial.

“My life was on the line, my liberty, and here I’m just a non-party subpoenaed witness,” Cohen said.

Prosecutors, defense spar over Cohen call with Trump

During their redirect of Cohen, prosecutors sought to push back on one of the most effective blows Blanche landed knocking his credibility, when he accused Cohen of making up a phone call with Trump ahead of the October 2016 payment to Daniels.

Blanche had confronted Cohen with text messages suggesting he called Keith Schiller, Trump’s former bodyguard, at 8:02 p.m. on October 24, 2016, about a harassing prank caller – and not to update Trump about the Daniels payment.

Hoffinger sought to rebut that testimony with a photo pulled from C-SPAN’s video of Trump’s rally that same night – showing Schiller with Trump when he left the stage just five minutes before the Cohen call.

That prompted a long fight between the two parties over admitting the photo into evidence – including plans to bring the C-SPAN archivist back from Louisiana – but it was ultimately admitted with a stipulation both sides agreed to.

Once the photo was admitted into evidence, Cohen told Hoffinger he spoke with Trump “more than 20 times” about Daniels in October 2016. Cohen testified that records “helped to refresh my memory,” about when he spoke to Trump about Daniels. The comment prompted a smile from Trump.

Blanche questioned Cohen one more time about the Schiller call before Cohen left the witness stand, asking whether he really could have asked Schiller about the prank call from a teenager and updated Trump on Daniels all in the span of a 90-second call.

“Your testimony is still … just so I understand … in that 90 seconds you spoke with Mr. Schiller about the problem you were having with the 14-year-old, got him to agree to take care of it, told him you would send him the number, which you did, but also had time for Mr. Schiller to pass the phone to Mr. Trump and update him on everything going on?” Blanche asked.

“Yes, sir,” Cohen said.

In his final question, Blanche asked, “Your testimony remains the same as you gave it last Tuesday, that notwithstanding everything that you said over the years, you have a specific recollection of having conversations on the phone with then-candidate Donald J. Trump about the Stormy Daniels matter?”

“Yes sir,” Cohen said.

“No doubt in your mind?” Blanche asked.

“No doubt,” Cohen said.

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