‘Are you staring me down?’: Furious judge clears courtroom after Trump defense witness sighs and rolls eyes

Judge Merchan threatened to remove Robert Costello for his audible reactions during final hush money testimony

Alex Woodward
in Manhattan criminal court
Monday 20 May 2024 21:44 BST
'Are you afraid to testify?': Trump repeatedly avoids questions amid hush money trial

The judge presiding over Donald Trump’s hush money trial in Manhattan cleared the courtroom and reprimanded defense witness Robert Costello for his heavy sighs, eye rolls and audible reactions to a series of objections to his testimony.

New York Justice Juan Merchan excused the jury on Monday to school Costello about “proper decorum” in the courtroom moments after his testimony began.

“You don’t like my rulings? You don’t say ‘jeez’,” he said. “You don’t roll your eyes. Do you understand that?”

While in the middle of asking the jury to return, the judge fired back: “Are you staring me down right now? Clear the courtroom.”

Members of the press and public awere asked to leave, with court officers shouting out “get out” to journalists who were abruptly forced out of an open court, leaving attorneys and the former president’s entourage inside.

According to a court transcript, the judge had threatened to toss Mr Costello out of the courtroom.

“Sir, your conduct is contemptuous right now,” he told him while jurors, press and members of the public were no longer in the room.

“I’m putting you on notice that your conduct is contemptuous,” he added. “If you try to stare me down one more time, I will remove you from the stand. I will strike his entire testimony. Do you understand me?”

Mr Costello then asked whether he could respond.

“No,” Judge Merchan said. “No. This is not a conversation.”

A courtroom sketch depicts lawyers meeting with Judge Juan Merchan as Donald Trump watches during his hush money trial in Manhattan on May 20.
A courtroom sketch depicts lawyers meeting with Judge Juan Merchan as Donald Trump watches during his hush money trial in Manhattan on May 20. (REUTERS)

Mr Costello, an attorney with ties to Rudy Giuliani, is likely the trial’s final witness, offering testimony intended to undermine critical evidence from Mr Trump’s one-time “fixer” Michael Cohen, who had previously testified to what he called Mr Costello’s “pressure campaign” to open a “back channel” of communication to Mr Trump while Cohen was under federal investigation.

After Cohen’s office and home were raided and phones were seized by federal agents in April 2018, Mr Costello suggested that Cohen would retain him as counsel, in what Cohen said was an effort to keep him close to Mr Trump to prevent him from “flipping” against him with information to federal investigators.

The remarkable moment in the Manhattan courthouse followed a lengthy day of testimony and debate over potential witnesses. Prosecutors rested their case against the former president on Monday afternoon after a final day of testimony from Cohen, the trial’s star witness, who explained how his life “turned upside down” after lying for his former boss.

Mr Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records for a series of invoices and checks to Cohen in 2017 that reimbursed him for his payment to Stormy Daniels in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election. Prosecutors allege Mr Trump unlawfully covered up potentially politically damaging information about his affairs to boost his chances of winning.

Monday ended with Mr Trump’s attorneys’ Hail Mary request to dismiss the case altogether, based on Cohen’s testimony alone, and with Mr Trump raging in the hallway and calling Judge Merchan a “tyrant.”

Inside the courtroom, Mr Costello said he never pressured Cohen to do anything, that he merely treated him as a client with his interests in mind, and wasn’t chasing an opportunity to represent him.

But under the prosecution’s cross examination, he admitted to celebrating what he thought was a big client, and that he would be “eternally grateful” to be “on the team” representing him, according to emails shown in court.

Mr Costello will return to the witness stand on Tuesday, where he will face roughly one hour’s worth of questions before defense attorneys rest their case.

In his testimony last week, Cohen described what he felt were Mr Costello’s “sketchy” attempts to strong-arm him into his service.

“This is part of the pressure campaign that, ‘everyone is lying to you, that you are still regarded, the president still supports you, do not speak, do not listen to what the journalists or anyone is saying, and stay in the fold,’” Cohen said last week. “’Don’t flip, don’t cooperate.’”

Donald Trump addresses reporters outside his hush money trial next to defense attorney Todd Blanche on May 20.
Donald Trump addresses reporters outside his hush money trial next to defense attorney Todd Blanche on May 20. (Getty Images)

Cohen didn’t trust him, he said, yet he remained “loyal to Mr Trump.”

After conversations with his family, and what he described as a sense of obligation to his wife and children and “to the country,” Cohen said he came to a realization: “I made a decision that I would not lie for President Trump any longer.”

He ultimately pleaded guilty in August 2018 to campaign finance violations, tax evasion, and lying to Congress.

One day after Cohen’s guilty plea, Mr Trump, in a tweet, made his distance public: “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!”

On the 15th floor of the courthouse, moments after trudging outside Judge Merchan’s courtroom, Mr Trump held an impromptu press conference to slam the case against him.

“You saw what we saw. That was an incredible display ... a tyrant,” he said.

“This trial is a disaster for our country. It’s a disaster for New York City, New York State,” he added. “The press I imagine is not happy they just got thrown out of a courthouse. Nobody’s ever seen anything like it.”

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