Trump’s trial reaches crescendo as tempers fray in the courtroom

Twelve New Yorkers are on deck.

As Donald Trump’s first criminal trial races toward its climax, his attorneys are previewing how they will beseech a jury next week to spare their client the shame of being the first ex-president to be convicted of a crime.

On a wild day in court Monday, Judge Juan Merchan accused one disrespectful defense witness of trying to stare him down, while the ex-president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen, sensationally admitted to stealing thousands of dollars from his old boss’ firm.

But beneath the uproar, there is also a clear sense that this trial – which is intertwined with the country’s future, given Trump’s bid to reclaim the White House – is now in its fateful endgame.

The presumptive Republican nominee’s lawyers made a long-shot bid for the dismissal of his first criminal trial before the jury has even been asked to deliberate. The gambit is a familiar one for defense teams that rarely works, but it offered a glimpse into the narrative Trump’s lawyers will place before the jury, likely next Tuesday, after the Memorial Day holiday.

Trump’s lawyer, Todd Blanche, argued prosecutors had failed to prove their case that Trump intended to mislead voters in 2016 by falsifying financial records to disguise a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels. And he implored Merchan not to hand jurors a case so reliant on testimony from Cohen, a confessed liar.

With the jury out of the room, Merchan took several stabs at getting it straight. He said: “You want me to take it out of the jury’s hands and decide before it even gets to the jury, that as a matter of law, this person is so not worthy of belief that it shouldn’t be considered by the jury?”

Blanche replied: “We didn’t just catch him in a lie, your honor, he came in here with a history of lying.”

The judge hardly seemed impressed. “You said his lies are ‘irrefutable’; that you think he’s going to fool 12 New Yorkers into believing this lie?” Merchan said.

Blanche answered: “I certainly hope he doesn’t convince 12 jurors.”

The judge said he’d consider the request, but it would be a major surprise if anything now happens to prevent the jury from getting the case.

Trump cranks up his strategy to discredit the trial before a verdict

Trump, meanwhile, escalated his inside-outside courtroom strategy that has turned his four criminal indictments into a rationale for his bid to win back the White House. He lashed out at Merchan in the corridor while surrounded by another posse of Republican Party supplicants.

“This case should be dropped by the judge. I think the judge, if he did that, would gain the respect back,” Trump said, insisting “there was no crime” and again complaining about a courtroom he called a “freezing cold ice box.” Trump has denied the affair with Daniels and pleaded not guilty in the case, as he has in all others against him.

The prosecution rested its case Monday, after trying to rehabilitate the sometimes rocky testimony of Cohen, the self-described former Trump “thug” who once wrote that he knew where the ex-president’s skeletons were buried because he did the burying. Barring an 11th hour change of heart, it appears that the former president himself won’t testify in his own defense — in what would be a sound legal decision as he’d almost certain make the case all about himself again after his lawyers spent days trying to make it about Cohen’s questionable credibility.

Key developments

Monday’s court action at times threatened to spin out of control — in a way that only a Trump trial can. But several key developments underscored the way the case is headed inexorably toward a jury deliberation that will keep the country on edge.

The prosecution’s main task was to try to repair damage to Cohen’s credibility and to stress to the jury — and to the judge in the back-and-forth over the motion to dismiss — that the case was about far more than Trump’s former fixer. Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo argued that the foundation of evidence presented in court before Cohen’s testimony corroborated what he had to say. Colangelo said that “at minimum, a reasonable juror could conclude the invoices, the ledger entries, the signed checks with check stubs — all contain false information.” And he argued there was an “overwhelming record of concealment” that supports an intent to defraud on Trump’s part.

Until Cohen entered a bruising cross-examination last week, the case appeared to be going well for the prosecution. But the witness who was always a big risk turned into a potentially case-derailing disaster. He was confronted with evidence that called into question his testimony under oath about speaking with Trump on October 24, 2016, to tell him the hush money payment scheme was going according to plan. The defense presented Cohen with text messages he had sent to Trump’s bodyguard Keith Schiller, who was with Trump at the time, just before the call, suggesting the conversation was about an entirely different matter. The implication was that Cohen didn’t speak to Trump about the hush money payment, raising questions about his fixer’s truthfulness.

The defense is implying that if Cohen cannot be trusted on this detail, his entire testimony implicating Trump cannot be believed. Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger on Monday tried to clean up some of Cohen’s mess. “I know it may feel like you’re on trial here after cross-examination, but are you actually on trial?” she asked Cohen. “No ma’am,” said the man who once said he idolized Trump.

But Cohen may have further damaged his standing with jurors earlier in the day when he admitted that he stole $60,000 from the Trump Organization. His admission, about a cut he took from a payment to a tech company and a subsequent reimbursement with interest from his boss’ firm, caused Blanche to ask: “Did you ever have to plead guilty to larceny?” which drew a smirk from Trump.

Some legal commentators suggested this episode was another bombshell shattering Cohen’s credibility. But others argued that it was just another data point for jurors who would have few illusions about Cohen’s character after he admitted to repeatedly lying on his own and Trump’s account.

“What is portrayed in the media is not what the jurors are ever going to see if they are following the judge’s instructions not to look at any stories on TV or read anything about this. It’s another piece of information for them to consider,” retired judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Courtroom chaos

Veteran lawyers and court reporters said they’d never seen anything like the scene precipitated by defense witness Robert Costello. The lawyer who had advised Cohen was called to the stand to testify for the defense, but it didn’t take long for him to get on the wrong side of Merchan. When the judge sustained an objection to a defense question, Costello let out an audible “jeez,” prompting the judge to lean forward and say, “Sorry?”

Costello’s disdain was evident again when the same thing happened shortly afterward and the judge asked the jury to leave the courtroom.

“You don’t give me a side eye and you don’t roll your eyes,” the judge warned. “When there’s a witness on the stand, if you don’t like my ruling, you don’t say ‘jeez,’ you don’t say strike it,” Merchan said. Costello replied with a glare. “Are you staring me down?” Merchan asked before clearing the courtroom.

Costello’s behavior was a stunning show of disrespect for a judge in his own courtroom — and the first part of it was visible to jurors.

“I don’t think this witness really helped this defense at all,” Cordell told Tapper. “My guess, maybe they called this witness because their client wanted them to do that. He really didn’t add anything and really created more of a problem than a help,” she said.

Predictably, the ultimate chaos agent enjoyed the disruption. Trump told reporters after court wrapped for the day: “You saw what happened to a highly respected lawyer today, Bob Costello. Wow. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Former long-time trial attorney Terri Austin agreed. “In all my years of practice, over 30 plus, I’ve never seen a moment like this,” she told CNN’s Erin Burnett.

It’s a superlative worn out by repetition ever since Trump descended the golden escalator in 2015 at his eponymous skyscraper not far from the Manhattan courtroom. And whatever happens in the coming days, we’ll likely hear it again.

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