Trump trial devolves into chaos as judge admonishes defense witness

Trump trial devolves into chaos as judge admonishes defense witness

NEW YORK — Former President Trump’s hush money trial devolved into chaos as it barreled toward a close on Monday, with the judge clearing his courtroom after admonishing a witness for improper decorum.

Earlier, the dramatic day saw prosecutors rest their case after nearly scrambling to fly in a final witness. It concluded with Trump’s lawyers seeking a dismissal of the charges, which was left unresolved by the judge for now.

The drama came in the trial’s final moments, its closing now delayed further than expected this week. Testimony is set to conclude on Tuesday — without Trump expected to take the stand — and closing statements are now expected just after the Memorial Day holiday.

The most striking moment of the day came after the defense called to the stand Robert Costello, a former legal advisor to ex-Trump fixer Michael Cohen, prosecutors’ star witness who made the hush money payment at the center of the case.

The defense brought in Costello to rebut Cohen’s testimony about a pressure campaign to not flip when federal investigators closed in on him in 2018.

Tensions quickly boiled over after the witness made audible comments and visually reacted to objections, leading Judge Juan Merchan to abruptly clear the press from the courtroom to discuss “decorum,” the first such time during the trial when proceedings were still underway.

“When there is an eyewitness on the stand, if you don’t like a ruling, you don’t say ‘Geez,’” Merchan told Costello before removing the press.

“You don’t give me a side eye. You don’t roll your eyes. You understand that?” he later said.

Merchan then raised his voice before ordering the court to clear the room.

“Are you staring me down?” he asked Costello.

Reporters shouted questions as security began to clear the room, with some asking a media lawyer present to object. Officers ushered everyone out, saying that they would explain what happened outside. After a few minutes, reporters were allowed back in without reason.

Trump’s entourage of allies  were allowed to stay in the courtroom.

“A totally conflicted judge who just did something that nobody’s ever seen,” Trump told reporters as he left court for the day. “And the press is not happy, I don’t imagine, they just got thrown out of a courthouse. Nobody’s ever seen anything quite like it.”

After the judge allowed the press and jurors back inside, Costello’s questioning resumed. He will return to the stand tomorrow, when he is expected to conclude his testimony early in the morning, likely as the defense’s final witness.

Prosecutors rested on Monday after putting 20 witnesses on the stand over roughly four weeks, ending with Cohen, who was considered to be their star witness.

Briefly, it seemed as if the prosecution’s case in chief would last another day. They began to scramble to fly in a C-SPAN employee from Indiana so he could retake the stand to introduce photos taken from video of Trump and his bodyguard possibly critical to the case. The hiccup was avoided after the parties reached an agreement.

To cap the busy day, Trump’s attorneys made a new motion to dismiss his 34 charges of falsifying business records. It’s not unusual for defense attorneys to seek the dismissal of charges against their client when the prosecution rests and has presented all its evidence.

Trump attorney Todd Blanche argued that prosecutors failed to prove that the underlying business records the former president is charged over — 11 invoices Cohen filed to Trump, 12 ledger entries and 11 checks Trump signed for Cohen — were false.

He also pushed back on the district attorney’s broader theory of the case, that Trump sought to have negative stories about him stifled to clear his path to the White House in 2016. Blanche insisted that the state’s portrayal of several so-called “catch-and-kill schemes” were not illegal.

“How is keeping a false story from the voters criminal?” Blanche said.

Prosecutors pushed back on the defense’s request, contending there is “extensive evidence of false records” and “no argument” to dismiss the charges against Trump.

Then, defense attorneys turned their aim at Cohen. Blanche claimed the former president’s ex-fixer “lied in the courtroom” and urged the judge to deem him an uncredible witness as a matter of law.

Cohen’s credibility has been of central focus during the trial. As the state’s star witness, undermining his trustworthiness could sow reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors – the bar they must reach to determine whether Trump is guilty or innocent of the charges he faces.

But by deeming him uncredible as a matter of law, jurors would no longer be asked to decide whether they can believe Cohen’s testimony.

“You want me to take it out of the jury’s hands?” Merchan asked. “It shouldn’t even be considered by the jury?”

“That’s exactly what we want the court to do,” Blanche replied.

Merchan reserved a decision on the matter, adjourning the trial until Tuesday morning, when witness testimony is expected to conclude.

Updated 5:50 p.m.

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