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Hush money trial: Trump witnesses Costello return to stand after reprimand

NEW YORK (AP) — A defense witness in Donald Trump’s case to maintain his silence whom the judge threatened to remove him from the trial over his behavior will return to the stand Tuesday as the trial nears its end.

Trump’s lawyers hope Robert Costello’s testimony will help undermine the credibility of a key prosecution witness. Michael Cohen, Trump’s fixer turned enemy.

What to know about Trump’s hush money trial:

But Costello infuriated Judge Juan Merchán on Monday by making comments under his breath, rolling his eyes and calling the entire exercise “ridiculous,” prompting the judge to briefly throw reporters out of the courtroom to reprimand him.

The judge told Costello, a former federal prosecutor, that he was being “dismissive” and added, “If you try to stare at me one more time, I will take you off the stand,” according to a court transcript.

Costello did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday from The Associated Press.

The chaotic scene unfolded after prosecutors concluded their case accusing Trump of falsifying business records as part of a plan to bury stories which he feared could harm his 2016 campaign. The case is in the final stretch and final arguments are expected on the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

The charges arise from internal Trump Organization records where payments to Cohen were marked as legal expenses. Prosecutors say they were actually reimbursements for a $130,000 payment to a porn actor to maintain his silence. Stormy Daniel to prevent her from making public claims of a sexual encounter with Trump before the 2016 election. Trump says nothing sexual happened between them.

Trump has said he did nothing illegal and has criticized the case as an effort to hinder his bid to retake the White House in 2024. Trump called the judge a “tyrant” in remarks to reporters as he left the courthouse Monday and called the trial as a “disaster” for the country.

After jurors retired Monday, defense attorneys pressured the judge to dismiss the charges even before jurors began deliberating, arguing that prosecutors had not proven their case. The defense has suggested that Trump was trying to protect his family, not his campaign, by stifling what he says were false and defamatory claims.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche argued that there was nothing illegal about enlisting the help of a tabloid to publish positive stories about Trump, publish negative stories about his opponents and identify potentially damaging stories before they were published. None of those involved “had any criminal intent,” Blanche said.

“How is it criminal to hide a false story from voters?” -Blanca asked.

Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan Criminal Court during his ongoing hush money trial, Monday, May 20, 2024, in New York.  (Mark Peterson/Pool Photo via AP)

Former President Donald Trump sits in Manhattan Criminal Court during his ongoing hush money trial, Monday, May 20, 2024, in New York. (Mark Peterson/Pool Photo via AP)

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo responded that “the trial evidence overwhelmingly supports every element” of the alleged crimes, and that the case should go to the jury.

The judge did not immediately rule on the defense request. Such unlikely requests are often made in criminal cases, but are rarely granted.

The defense called Costello because of his role as Cohen’s antagonist since their professional relationship broke down spectacularly. Costello had offered to represent Cohen shortly after the lawyer’s hotel room, office and home were raided and when Cohen was faced with the decision of whether to remain defiant in the face of a criminal investigation or cooperate with authorities in hopes of obtaining more lenient treatment.

Costello in the years since has repeatedly smeared Cohen’s credibility and he even witnessed before last year’s grand jury that indicted Trump, offering testimony designed to undermine Cohen’s account. In a Fox News Channel interview last week, Costello accused Cohen of lying to the jury and using the case to “monetize” himself.

Costello contradicted Cohen’s testimony describing Trump as intimately involved in all aspects of the secret money scheme. Costello told jurors Monday that Cohen told him Trump “didn’t know anything” about paying Daniels hush money.

“Michael Cohen said on numerous occasions that President Trump knew nothing about those payments, that he did it on his own, and he repeated it on numerous occasions,” Costello testified.

Cohen, however, testified Monday that he has “no doubt” that Trump gave him final approval to make the payments to Daniels. In total, he said he spoke to Trump more than 20 times about the matter in October 2016.

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

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For a long time he reported from Washington. Associated Press journalists Jill Colvin and Michelle Price in New York; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina; and Eric Tucker and Alanna Durkin Richer in Washington contributed to this report.