Pro-Trump witness Costello tries to turn trial into farce
Judge Juan Merchan, left, castigates witness Robert Costello about his "decorum" in the courtroom in Manhattan criminal court. AP

NEW YORK—The last defense witness Monday in the hush money payoff trial of ex-president Donald Trump, veteran criminal lawyer Robert Costello, tried to turn the trial into a farce—and was brought up sharply and bluntly by the presiding judge.

With the jury out of the room late on May 20, State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan lit into Costello, for constant eye-rolling, snickering, snide remarks, and general defiance.

All of which, plus Costello’s testimony, doesn’t shake the key evidence in the hush money case.

One piece: The checks then-Republican presidential nominee Trump signed to pay off two women he had affairs with, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, during the 2016 presidential election campaign, to shut up.

The other piece: Audio and video tapes of Trump discussing and ordering the payoffs in talks with the lawyer/fixer he had handling the transactions, Michael Cohen. The money was from Trump’s personal account, but he tried to charge it off to the family firm as “legal fees” and it was an illegal campaign contribution, too. In Nixon-era terms, two “smoking guns.”

And Trump got caught, resulting in the 34-count criminal indictment by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for the multiple check transactions, including lies in the family firm’s books.

All this makes Trump the first-ever ex-president to be charged with criminal felonies which could, if convicted, send him to the state’s Sing Sing prison or to New York City’s infamous criminal prison on Riker’s Island.

Conviction, opinion polls show, would break the current tie between Trump, again the Republican presidential nominee, and the man who beat him, incumbent Democrat Joe Biden—in Biden’s favor.

If elected, convicted, and jailed, Trump can’t pardon himself from state felony charges and sentences.

Trump’s lawyers called Costello to the stand to try to prove the prosecution’s prime witness, former Trump lawyer/fixer Cohen, was a liar about Trump’s payments to two women. Trump, via Cohen, paid Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougall $280,000 combined to keep their prior affairs with him from becoming public during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Cohen pocketed $420,000, though.

But regardless of what Costello said, actual evidence showed he’s wrong.

He signed the checks

Previous sessions of the trial revealed Trump signed the checks to Cohen that ultimately paid off the women. Enlarged photostats of the checks were shown on a courtroom screen, complete with Trump’s name, address, and black magic-marker-like signature.

And the jurors have already heard an audio tape of one Cohen-Trump phone call discussing one of the two payoffs and saw a video of their discussion of the other.

Costello–an associate of Trump consigliere Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s chief 2020 election fixer–tried to brush off all this. He sneered, rolled his eyes, snickered, made snide remarks, and generally exhibited defiance in court. Justice Merchan finally had it when Costello tried to engage him in a staredown. He lectured lawyer Costello on courtroom decorum.

“When there is an eyewitness on the stand, if you don’t like a ruling, you don’t say ‘Geez,’” Merchan told the mobster-like Costello before throwing reporters out of the courtroom.

“You don’t give me a side eye. You don’t roll your eyes. You understand that?” the justice said. When Costello responded with an impudent stare, the justice asked “Are you staring me down?”

Justice Merchan then ordered the reporters out but left in the congressional Republican Trump worshipers who came to Manhattan to show and pledge fealty to their god.

The May 19 batch featured leaders of the hard-right Trumpite Republican House rebels, also known as the Freedom Caucus. Justice Merchan let them stay, and after a few minutes, let the reporters return, without explanation for their expulsion.

Trump, of course, kept up his post-court barrages. Justice Merchan has already fined Trump $11,000 for contempt of court for violating a gag order banning Trump’s insults of jurors, witnesses, prosecutors, and even the justice’s family and staff, though not Justice Merchan himself. So that’s who Trump attacked.

Trump called Justice Merchan “a totally conflicted judge who just did something that nobody’s ever seen. 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.”

Before the wrap-up, Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche tried to get Justice Merchan to tell the jury to disregard all of Cohen’s evidence because Cohen was a crook himself who turned state’s evidence and started to sing against Trump.

The justice didn’t bite. Even if he does, that still leaves the tapes and the signed checks.

“You want me to take it out of the jury’s hands? It shouldn’t even be considered by the jury?” Justice Merchan asked. “That’s exactly what we want the court to do,” Blanche replied. The justice expects to rule on that by May 23.

Costello’s testimony is expected to conclude on May 21, with closing arguments by the two sides beginning two days later.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.