Trump Courtroom Plays Host to Nonstop Spectacle

On a pivotal day in the first criminal trial of an American president, the courtroom threatened to spin out of control.

The prosecution’s star witness, Michael D. Cohen, admitted on the stand to stealing from former President Donald J. Trump’s company. Mr. Trump’s courtroom entourage included three supporters charged with felonies of their own. And the defense’s only real witness was so defiant that the judge, after excoriating him, cleared the courtroom.

The trial’s first five weeks featured dramatic descriptions of sex and scandal, and the final phase of testimony on Monday showed no signs of a letup, as the courtroom played host to a nonstop spectacle.

The tension came to a head after the prosecution rested its case and the defense called its witness, Robert J. Costello, a lawyer who had once advised Mr. Cohen. The defense saw Mr. Costello as a foil to Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s onetime personal lawyer and longtime henchman.

But the strategy may not have paid off: The judge promptly lost his patience with Mr. Costello, a prosecutor turned defense lawyer and a fixture in New York’s legal world. When Mr. Costello scoffed at one of the judge’s rulings — “jeez,” he said, before mumbling a retraction — the judge grew irate.

Excusing the jury, the judge, Juan M. Merchan, lectured Mr. Costello: “If you don’t like my ruling, you don’t say ‘jeez,’ and you don’t say ‘strike it,’ because I’m the only one who can strike testimony in court,” he said, adding, “Are you staring me down?”

He ordered the courtroom cleared, briefly ejecting reporters and other onlookers, while allowing Mr. Trump’s supporters to remain.

The explosion overshadowed the performance from Mr. Cohen, who on his fourth and final day on the stand fended off a fusillade of attacks from the defense.

He was the only witness to offer firsthand evidence directly linking Mr. Trump to the records that underpin the charges against him. Mr. Trump, he said, approved a plan to falsify the records to cover up a sex scandal involving a porn star.

During Monday’s cross-examination, Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer assailed Mr. Cohen’s credibility, painting him as a pathological liar obsessed with taking down the former president. But Mr. Cohen maintained his composure, while some jurors seemed to lose focus as they shifted in their chairs.

And when prosecutors received a second opportunity to question Mr. Cohen, they sought to blunt much of the impact of the cross-examination.

“Are you charged with any crimes in this case?” a prosecutor, Susan Hoffinger, asked him. “No, ma’am,” Mr. Cohen replied, explaining that he was there merely as a “subpoenaed witness.”

Yet Mr. Cohen, the 20th and final person to take the stand for the prosecution, was not just any witness. He illustrated much of the prosecution’s case as no one else could, harmonizing disparate facts to portray Mr. Trump as a criminal.

Mr. Cohen took the stand Monday amid a uniquely Trumpian display, as an eclectic entourage of the former president’s supporters — several with legal troubles of their own — packed the courtroom.

The group of more than a dozen included not only Republican lawmakers and Alan Dershowitz, the high-profile lawyer, but also a legal adviser to Mr. Trump who is under indictment in Arizona, Boris Epshteyn, and Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner whom Mr. Trump pardoned for federal felony charges. And there was Chuck Zito, a former leader of the New York chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, a man with jet-black hair in an Elvis-style swoop who had spent years in prison on drug charges.

They swept into the courtroom to back up Mr. Trump as his face-off with his former fixer and current nemesis continued.

But that was hardly the end of the fireworks. When Mr. Costello took the stand, he sought to persuade the jury that Mr. Cohen was a no-good liar.

He recalled their first meeting in spring 2018, after the F.B.I. had searched Mr. Cohen’s home and office amid an investigation into the hush-money deal. While Mr. Cohen had testified that Mr. Costello was part of a “pressure campaign” by Mr. Trump’s allies, Mr. Costello said on Monday that Mr. Cohen had been desperate for help.

“My life is shattered,” Mr. Costello recalled the former fixer telling him before asking, “What’s my escape route?”

Mr. Costello testified that he had told him he could cooperate with the government, but Mr. Cohen said he had nothing incriminating to offer.

Mr. Costello recalled that Mr. Cohen said at the spring 2018 meeting, “I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.”

Amid a chorus of objections from Ms. Hoffinger — most of which the judge sustained — Mr. Costello and Mr. Trump both shook their heads in apparent frustration.

Leaving court for the day, Mr. Trump praised Mr. Costello, but called Justice Merchan a “tyrant” and the trial a “disaster.”

Mr. Costello, who will continue his testimony Tuesday, was preceded by Mr. Cohen himself, who sat through another fierce round of questioning from the defense.

Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, ventured toward the heart of the case: Mr. Trump’s reimbursement of Mr. Cohen for his hush-money payment to the porn star, Stormy Daniels. Mr. Cohen’s $130,000 payment on the eve of the 2016 presidential election silenced her account of a sexual rendezvous with Mr. Trump that had threatened to derail his campaign.

In return, Mr. Cohen was paid $420,000 — an amount that he said included the hush money, a bonus, money for taxes and $50,000 to repay a tech company in an unrelated matter. But when pressed by Mr. Blanche, Mr. Cohen acknowledged that he had pocketed more than half of the money earmarked for the tech company, RedFinch.

“You stole from the Trump Organization, is that right?” Mr. Blanche asked.

“Yes, sir,” Mr. Cohen replied.

Mr. Blanche also emphasized how much money Mr. Cohen has reaped from his attacks on his former boss and mentor, Mr. Trump, suggesting that his testimony was motivated by greed, not truth-telling. Mr. Cohen has written two books and is considering a third, and has profited handsomely from a podcast. He has even said he might run for Congress.

But when Mr. Blanche suggested that a conviction would complete Mr. Cohen’s revenge plot, Mr. Cohen corrected him, at least on the economics.

He said it would be better if Mr. Trump escaped unscathed, because “it gives me more to talk about in the future.”

Mr. Blanche sought to finish the crucial exchange with a flourish, returning to his claim last week that Mr. Cohen had lied on the stand about speaking to Mr. Trump in late October 2016 about the hush-money deal. But Mr. Cohen forced him to end with a whimper, not a bang.

“No doubt?” Mr. Blanche asked Mr. Cohen about his recollection of speaking to Mr. Trump.

“No doubt,” Mr. Cohen replied, capping his cross-examination.

There is no way of knowing what the jury thinks of Mr. Cohen, whose past lies and misdeeds were hardly a secret — prosecutors warned the jury to expect an outsize personality with a heavy load of baggage. And their verdict is not imminent. Justice Merchan scheduled closing arguments for May 28, after which jurors might begin deliberations.

On Monday, when Ms. Hoffinger, the prosecutor, had the opportunity to question Mr. Cohen again, she sought to smooth some of his testimony’s rougher edges.

To underscore the idea that Mr. Trump approved of Mr. Cohen’s conduct, she produced a text message from one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, who expressed appreciation for Mr. Cohen’s telling the media — he now says falsely — that he had paid off Ms. Daniels on his own initiative.

“Client says thank you for what you do,” the text message read, appearing to refer to Mr. Trump.

She also asked Mr. Cohen whether he had been wrong to steal from the Trump Organization when seeking reimbursement for the technology firm’s work. Mr. Cohen agreed that he had been.

Finally, Ms. Hoffinger returned to the records that the prosecution says Mr. Trump faked to conceal the hush-money deal. Mr. Trump, who faces probation or up to four years in prison, is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records, one for each document related to his reimbursement of Mr. Cohen in 2017: 11 checks to Mr. Cohen (most of which Mr. Trump signed), 11 invoices submitted by Mr. Cohen and 12 entries in Mr. Trump’s ledger.

The documents all referred to a “retainer agreement,” implying that Mr. Cohen received the money for ordinary expenses. While Mr. Blanche highlighted a variety of legal assignments Mr. Cohen performed for the Trump family around this time, Ms. Hoffinger focused intently on specific sums and records.

“Did the $420,000 that you received in 2017 have anything to do with legal services you provided in 2017?” she asked Mr. Cohen. He bluntly replied: “No.”

“When you submitted each of your 11 invoices,” she then asked, “was that true or false?”

“False,” he confirmed.

And the check stubs that reflected a supposed retainer?

“False,” he told the jury.

Ms. Hoffinger also asked Mr. Cohen to assess the impact of his falling-out with Mr. Trump, who had been the focus of his existence for years.

“My entire life has been turned upside down,” he said.

Kate Christobek, Wesley Parnell, Jesse McKinley and Susanne Craig contributed reporting.


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