Defense witness who angered judge in Trump’s hush money trial will return to the stand

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

Trump’s lawyers are hoping Robert Costello’s testimony will help undermine the credibility of a key prosecution witness, Trump fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen.

But Costello angered Judge Juan Merchan on Monday by making comments under his breath, rolling his eyes and calling the whole exercise “ridiculous,” prompting the judge to briefly kick reporters out of the courtroom to admonish him.

The judge told Costello, a former federal prosecutor, he was being “contemptuous,” adding, “If you try to stare me down one more time, I will remove you from the stand,” according to a court transcript.

Costello didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday from The Associated Press.

The chaotic scene unfolded after prosecutors rested their case accusing Trump of falsifying business records as part of a scheme to bury stories that he feared could hurt his 2016 campaign. The case is in the final stretch, with closing arguments expected the Tuesday after Memorial Day.

The charges stem from internal Trump Organization records where payments to Cohen were marked as legal expenses. Prosecutors say they were really reimbursements for a $130,000 hush money payment to porn actor Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public before the 2016 election with claims of a sexual encounter with Trump. Trump says nothing sexual happened between them.

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

After jurors left for the day Monday, defense attorneys pressed the judge to throw out the charges before jurors even begin deliberating, arguing prosecutors have failed to prove their case. The defense has suggested that Trump was trying to protect his family, not his campaign, by squelching what he says were false, scurrilous claims.

Defense attorney Todd Blanche argued that there was nothing illegal about soliciting a tabloid’s help to run positive stories about Trump, run negative stories about his opponents and identify potentially damaging stories before they were published. No one involved “had any criminal intent,” Blanche said.

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

Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo shot back that “the trial evidence overwhelmingly supports each element” of the alleged offenses, and the case should proceed to the jury.

The judge didn’t immediately rule on the defense’s request. Such long-shot requests are often made in criminal cases but are rarely granted.

The defense called Costello because of his role as an antagonist to Cohen since their professional relationship splintered in spectacular fashion. Costello had offered to represent Cohen soon after the lawyer’s hotel room, office and home were raided and as Cohen faced a decision about whether to remain defiant in the face of a criminal investigation or to cooperate with authorities in hopes of securing more lenient treatment.

Costello in the years since has repeatedly maligned Cohen’s credibility and was even a witness 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 hush money scheme. Costello told jurors Monday that Cohen told him Trump “knew nothing” about the hush money payment to Daniels.

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

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

Trump lawyer Emil Bove told the judge that the defense does not plan to call any other witnesses after Costello, though they may still call campaign-finance expert Bradley A. Smith for limited testimony. They have not said definitively that 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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Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers 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.

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