Trump Trial Judge Seals the Courtroom to Unload on MAGA Lawyer

Steven Hirsch/Pool via Reuters
Steven Hirsch/Pool via Reuters

The judge overseeing Donald Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan suddenly sealed his courtroom on Monday afternoon, kicking all reporters out so he could engage in a brawl with Robert Costello, a MAGA-friendly lawyer who played a key role in the attempted backchannel between Michael Cohen and the Trump White House in 2018.

After Costello, a former prosecutor, was reprimanded for delivering outbursts in the court whenever he was interrupted or told not to answer a question that had been objected to and sustained, Costello began to stare down the judge.

“Mr. Costello, I’d like to discuss proper decorum in my courtroom, OK?” Judge Juan Merchan said after ordering the jury out of the room.

“Right,” Costello replied.

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Merchan then told Costello that witnesses on the stand cannot act out if they don’t like a judge’s ruling.

“I’m the only one who can strike testimony in the courtroom. If you don’t like my ruling, you don’t give me side-eye and you don’t roll your eyes. Do you understand that?”

“I understand that,” Costello replied.

But then, when Merchan had turned around, he saw that Costello was staring straight at him again. “Are you staring me down right now?” he asked.

At that, he ordered security to seal the courtroom and all journalists to leave so he could give Costello a dressing down.

Hours after the exchange, court transcripts released by court reporters revealed what happened next.

“Your conduct is contemptuous right now. I’m putting you on notice that your conduct is contemptuous. If you try to stare me down one more time, I will remove you from the stand,” Merchan told Costello.

The judge then turned to Emil Bove, the Trump defense lawyer who was questioning the witness.

“I will strike his entire testimony; do you understand me?” Merchan told him.

“Yes, Judge. I understand,” Bove responded.

Merchan then tried to get Costello to shorten his answers and stop diving into lengthy narratives about his interactions with Cohen that were clearly intended to cast doubt on the man.

“Listen to the question and answer the question,” Merchan said.

But Costello remained insistent.

“Can I say something, please?” he interjected.

“No. No. This is not a conversation,” the judge stated.

Snippets of the transcripts of the exchange were quickly shared amongst news organizations on Monday evening.

When journalists were allowed to re-enter, Costello’s pale face was now beet red and twisted with an irritated frown.

Costello continued to answer questions from Bove about his minor role in the New York criminal case against the former president—Costello attempted to represent Cohen when the feds started looking into Trump’s $130,000 hush money deal—but nearly every answer was drowned out by prosecutors’ objections.

The judge had reached his breaking point earlier after watching Costello, a former federal prosecutor who had no patience being on the receiving end, meet every sustained objection with a shake of the head, then a frown, then an emphatic “jeez” that carried across the courtroom. When Costello let out a loud sigh, Merchan excused the jury—setting off the chain of events that led to the forced exodus from the courtroom.

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As the day came to a close, Costello used his testimony as an opportunity to make Cohen seem unreasonable in the days after the FBI raided his apartment in search of evidence of a campaign finance crime. Costello recalled joining his law partner, Jeff Citron, to meet Cohen at New York City’s Regency hotel.

“He was suicidal that day and acting very manic,” Costello recalled. “I explained to Michael Cohen that this entire legal problem he was facing would be resolved by the end of the week if he had truthful information on Donald Trump and cooperated with the Southern District of New York.”

Costello told jurors that Cohen told him, “I swear to God, Bob, I don’t have anything on Donald Trump.” As he finished that sentence, the lawyer blinked twice and looked straight at Bove with a blank look on his face.

“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.

The lawyer’s tale directly counters what jurors heard from Cohen over the past week in court.

Trump’s team, which isn’t expected to call almost any other witnesses to present an alternate read of the evidence seen at trial, sees Costello as its ticket to call Cohen’s testimony into question. And that mission is paramount: Cohen was once Trump’s personal attorney and confidant, and he alone connects Trump directly to an indictment that accuses the former president of directing a cover-up to spare his 2016 presidential campaign from fatal embarrassment.

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