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Trump declines witness stand as testimony in his first trial concludes

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Trump declines witness stand as testimony in his first trial concludes

May 21, 2024 | 1:56 pm ET
By Ashley Murray
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Trump declines witness stand as testimony in his first trial concludes
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Former President Donald Trump sits in court during the final day of testimony in his New York trial. Trump, the first former U.S. president to face trial on criminal charges, is accused of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments. Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The end of the first criminal trial of a former U.S. president is in sight as Donald Trump’s defense team rested its case Tuesday in Manhattan, where jurors have heard weeks of testimony from nearly two dozen witnesses about Trump’s alleged reimbursement of hush money meant to silence a porn star before the 2016 presidential election.

Trump did not take the stand after his team called just two witnesses.

The former president is accused of 34 felonies for falsifying business records. New York prosecutors allege that Trump covered up reimbursing his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen for paying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels just before Election Day in 2016 to silence her about a tryst with Trump.

Trump, the presumptive 2024 Republican candidate for president, denies the affair and maintains that he was paying Cohen for routine legal work.

The case will not resume until after the Memorial Day holiday, when closing arguments are expected.

A back channel to Trump

Trump’s defense team’s second and final witness, former federal prosecutor and longtime New York-based attorney Robert Costello, stepped down from the witness stand Tuesday morning. His brief but tense appearance began Monday afternoon and included an admonishment from Justice Juan Merchan for “contemptuous” conduct.

Costello testified to meeting a panicked and “suicidal” Cohen in April 2018 after the FBI had raided Cohen’s New York City hotel room as part of an investigation of his $130,000 payment to Daniels just before the 2016 presidential election.

After Merchan sustained a series of objections from the prosecution Monday, Costello exclaimed, “jeez” and “ridiculous” on the mic and at one point rolled his eyes at Merchan. Merchan cleared the courtroom, including the press, to address Costello and Trump’s defense team.

Costello’s testimony confirmed that he offered a back channel for Cohen to communicate with then-President Trump through Costello’s close contact and Trump’s former legal counsel Rudy Giuliani as Cohen was under investigation, according to reporters at the courthouse.

New York does not allow recording in the courtroom but provides public transcripts of the proceedings.

During cross examination, prosecutor Susan Hoffinger showed a series of Costello’s emails in an attempt to convince jurors that Costello was actively working to assure Trump that Cohen would not turn against him during the federal investigation.

In one email between Costello and his law partner, he asks, “What should I say to this (expletive)? He is playing with the most powerful man on the planet,” according to reporters at the courthouse.

Hoffinger also established from Costello during her final series of questions that Cohen never officially retained him for legal help — reinforcing that Costello showed up in Cohen’s life only after the FBI raid.

Trump’s multiple indictments

Costello has been publicly critical of the hush money trial against Trump, and of Cohen, as recently as May 15, when he testified before the GOP-led U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.

There, Costello told lawmakers that the cases brought against Trump during this election year are “politically motivated.”

Trump, who faces dozens of criminal charges in four separate cases, was indicted in New York in April 2023.

Three other criminal cases were also brought against Trump in 2023. They all remain on hold.

  • The former president was indicted by a federal grand jury in Florida in June 2023 on charges related to the mishandling of classified information. Federal District Judge Aileen Cannon indefinitely postponed proceedings, making a trial before the November election unlikely.
  • Trump was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., in August 2023. A four-count indictment accused him of knowingly spreading falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election results and scheming to overturn them. Trump claimed presidential immunity from the criminal charges in October 2023, which both the federal trial and appeals courts denied. Trump is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Weeks after the federal election interference indictment, Trump was indicted on state charges in Fulton County, Georgia, for allegedly interfering in the state’s 2020 presidential election results. The Georgia case has been mired in pretrial disputes over alleged misconduct by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

Courtroom conditions

In the dim, tightly secured hallway just feet from the courtroom at the New York County Supreme Court, Trump again criticized the trial Monday and accused prosecutors of wanting to keep him off the campaign trail.

“We’re here an hour early today. I was supposed to be making a speech for political purposes. I’m not allowed to have anything to do with politics because I’m sitting in a very freezing cold courtroom for the last four weeks. It’s very unfair. They have no case, they have no crime,” he said before the news cameras that he’s stopped to speak in front of every day during the trial.

Trump told the cameras that outside the courtroom was like “Fort Knox.”

He complained that there are “more police than I’ve ever seen anywhere,” and said “there’s not a civilian within three blocks of the courthouse.”

That statement is false. States Newsroom attended the trial Monday and witnessed the scene outside the courthouse during the morning, mid-afternoon and late afternoon.

Just as dawn broke, people standing in the general-public line vying for the few public seats in the courtroom squabbled over who was in front of whom.

About an hour later, a woman with a bullhorn showed up in the adjacent Collect Pond Park to read the Bible and amplify contemporary Christian music played from her phone. A man paced the park holding a sign that read, “Trump 2 Terrified 2 Testify.”

Several people sat outside eating and talking at tables in Collect Pond Park during the 1 p.m. hour, as witnessed by reporters who left the courtroom after Merchan dismissed the jury for lunch.

By late afternoon, a small handful of protesters holding Trump flags and signs shouted that he was innocent.