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Prosecution Rests In Donald Trump Hush Money Trial; Cohen's Former Legal Adviser Testifies For Defense. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired May 20, 2024 - 15:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our special coverage of former President Trump's hush money criminal trial. The defense is now presenting its case. And Trump's team just called their second and potentially final witness, legal advisor to Michael Cohen, Robert Costello.

Our panel is back with us. What do you make of this?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: What do I make of this? I don't think they should spend a lot of time with him. So Robert Costello is a witness that was called to the grand jury at the beginning of these proceedings at the request of the Trump attorneys, basically to attack Michael Cohen's credibility.

My guess is that he's up to talk about places where he believes that Michael Cohen is lying. He's even been on other media outlets saying, I'm the one who can demonstrate that Michael Cohen is lying.

Now again, sort of as we've been talking about through this program, it's not in the defense's interest to spend a lot of time with this witness. Also, partly because every word that comes out of his mouth, prosecutors can attack him on in terms of contradictions he's made, the fact that he testified in Congress just last week about all of this. It would be easy for prosecutors to say that this witness is himself biased against another witness and is sort of clouded by his own judgment.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Elie, the parties are at the bench before Costello is actually brought into court. But he'll be brought in soon, we're told, and he will be called to testify.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, Judge Merchan is asking the jurors to step outside. They're probably trying to hash out what are the limitations and scope of what Bob Costello can testify to. I agree with Eliot.

I mean, not knowing yet exactly what he has to say, my inclination would be not to call him as the defense. It seems he's clearly going to undermine and contradict some aspects of Michael Cohen's testimony. One area where it seems likely, given prior statements that he's made and the lawyers have made, is he's going to say, I believe, that Michael Cohen did want and was hoping for a pardon. Ultimately, Cohen didn't get it. That ground's already largely been covered, though, and there's other

evidence to show, there's e-mails and other evidence in the case to show that Cohen did want a pardon at some point in time or was hoping or at least asking about it. What I'm really interested to see is, does Cohen contradict any of Michael Cohen's core testimony about the hush money payments that were made?

WILLIAMS: Does Costello contradict?

HONIG: Costello, yes. Does Bob Costello undercut any of Michael Cohen's core testimony about the hush money payments?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He might, and we don't know the answer to that. But, you know, he did testify before Congress. He presented himself to Michael Cohen as the back channel to Donald Trump after his office was raided and all his phones were taken.

BLITZER: We just heard in the court, our folks inside, they were telling us that the judge just said, I do wish that we had discussed this earlier after Trump's legal team called Costello to the stand.

WILLIAMS: OK, that is judge speak for, don't do this to me again. You are playing games with the court's time. One never wishes to be in a position where a judge is short of scolding you directly, saying that, look, we had a calendar here, we had witnesses lined up, and it's sort of silly to be calling a witness here.

Now, to be clear, the defense has the right to do that. They're less constrained than the prosecution is, and they can just call someone to the stand. But lots of people's time, including the jury's, is at issue here when you call someone to the stand.

BORGER: You know, Jeff was saying this during the break, but I think you're probably right, that this is a witness that Donald Trump may well have said, you know, you've got to put Bob Costello on the stand. He knows all of this. Costello represented Rudy Giuliani. He represented Steve Bannon. He called Michael Cohen and said, you know, you're loved, and presented himself as a back channel to Donald Trump, which he may well have been. So I think that, you know, it may well be something that Trump wanted.

HONIG: This is interesting here. Prosecutors are seeking to preclude or block Costello from testifying.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: I mean, this is certainly interesting. I mean, in lieu of testifying himself, which Donald Trump, I mean, given his druthers, of course he would want to be in the courtroom talking about this, but the legal ramifications are too severe. So, of course this was his idea.

He, you know, has been in consultation with his lawyers, but this is very, very interesting that they're seeking to preclude him.

BLITZER: Prosecutors are seeking to preclude Costello from testimony. Can they do that? ZELENY: On what grounds?

WILLIAMS: Well, they can if there's some reason why there's no basis for calling him whatsoever.

BLITZER: The prosecution has rested, but the defense hasn't.

WILLIAMS: Right. I mean, the defense can present the case they wish, but the prosecutors are probably going to make some argument that this is outside the scope of the trial or he has nothing to add.


Again, this is precisely why the judge says, I wish you raised this with me before, because they now have to have a legal back and forth outside the presence of the jury to figure out whether they ought to admit this witness. They could have sorted this out days ago if the defense had decided -- had made clear that they were going to call this witness.

BORGER: This is something that was done in the 11th hour. Wouldn't you agree?

HONIG: Well, yes, but this is the defense case. The defense does not have to put its case on or commit to anything until 15 minutes ago when the prosecution rested. But let me give it sort of educated speculation about what the dispute is here.

I think prosecutors are saying, you the defense cannot call some outside witness to attack Michael Cohen's credibility around the core of this case at the margin. So you can't call a witness to say, well, he lied about, let's say, the pardon, because the pardon is not central to this case. What you can call an outside witness, Bob Costello, to do is to attack the credibility on the core of this case, on the hush money payments.

And I would hazard a guess, I don't know, we're not inside the courtroom, but that's what they're debating right now.

WILLIAMS: Just to clarify one thing that you said, though, they did not need to do this at 3:33 p.m. Even this morning, if they knew that they -- outside the presence of the jury, if they knew that they might have called this witness, they could have raised that with the court and sorted this out hours ago.

HONIG: Yes, so how can jurors now saying they should be limited? Cohen didn't recall Costello telling him, Costello, that he should cooperate against Trump. I think where they're going here is a conversation that Costello and Michael Cohen had about should you, Michael Cohen, cooperate against Donald Trump.

BLITZER: And Costello is being described as a legal advisor to Cohen.

HONIG: Yes, there's some dispute about whether he ever entered a formal attorney-client relationship. Cohen maintains that they did not. BORGER: But Costello was on Team Trump.

HONIG: For sure.

BORGER: And, you know, that is indisputable. And he didn't, you know, Cohen was in a tough situation, right? He'd just been raided by the FBI, and he was worried about his future. And so Costello calls him and says, don't worry, you're loved. The boss loves you. Stay in the family.

ZELENY: And that issue here are the phone calls. That's why the paralegal was on the stand talking about those records. So we're talking about some 75 phone calls over a three-month period in 2018.

BORGER: And one was 96 minutes, right?

ZELENY: Sounds like someone was put on hold or something.

HONIG: Now we have an understanding. This is what we were speculating. The testimony that the defense wants to put on from Costello is that Costello said to Michael Cohen, you might want to consider flipping, cooperating against Donald Trump.

And according to Costello, Michael Cohen said, but I don't have anything on him. And now they're fighting about whether that can come in. Bove, who's one of the defense lawyers, also says Trump's legal team let the prosecutors know they were likely to put Costello on the stand days ago. So that gets back to the timing and logistical issue.

BORGER: And Cohen said he was lying when he answered that question because he was afraid of retribution. Right.

BLITZER: Yes. Yes. From that initial meeting, Bove, Emil Bove, one of the Trump attorneys, said Costello's recollection is different from Cohen's recollection.

ZELENY: So it makes you wonder as we end the day here, the jurors who are outside the room, they are not there, what they're thinking. But it's been a long time ago since Michael Cohen said that he stole from the Trump Organization. So to me, that's what all this is sort of interesting is that they're not going home today with that fresh in their minds.

BLITZER: And Bove added this.

Costello recalls Cohen saying, President Trump --

HONIG: They did not know about the payment to Stormy Daniels, which as the defense lawyer, it is extremely probative of the court issues in this case. I suspect what the judge is going to do is allow the defense to call Bob Costello. I don't think he's going to block it but keep it on a very tight leash.

BORGER: But then Cohen says he was lying when he said that. So then does Cohen go back on the stand?

HONIG: Maybe. It depends how much. I mean, who wants to be Mr. Last Word here, as my dad used to say.

BLITZER: We'll see who the defense calls. Remember, as I said, the prosecution has rested, the defense has not yet rested. We'll what happens. It's very dramatic. Everybody stand by.

Much more of our special coverage of this trial coming up. A debate over a witness unfolding right now in court. Stay with us. We'll be right back.



ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: Welcome back to CNN's special coverage of Donald Trump's hush money criminal trial. Back with me now is CNN's Paula Reed and Kristen Holmes. I want to catch you up on what's been going on just in the last few minutes inside of that courtroom.

They are taking just a very brief break, but they're in the middle of a big dispute over the defense's next witness, a man named Bob Costello, who was a legal advisor to Michael Cohen. And one of the things that one of Trump's lawyers, Emil Bove, has just said is that he believes that Costello can provide direct evidence that Cohen committed perjury on that witness stand.

That's a big allegation to be making. And not only that, but there is a dispute in Trump land, in Trump's legal world, about whether or not this is a wise course of action.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I'm really surprised he's being called because last week I was told in no uncertain terms he was not necessary to the defense's case. Then, on Wednesday, he appeared before Congress testifying about Michael Cohen with the sole purpose of undercutting his credibility and really just kind of dumping on this case where he was a witness for the defense before the grand jury. That caught Trump's attention.

Kristen and I broke the story late last week that he was then suddenly under consideration to be called. By getting the defendant's attention, they were able to go around people who weren't sure he needed to take the stand. And here we are today, he's about to take the stand.


They just have to narrow down what it is he can testify to. So this is a significant change of course and it speaks to the power the defendant has.

PHILLIP: So this, at issue here, for Michael Cohen and Bob Costello, is this idea that he was the subject of a pressure campaign by Trump through Costello. That's how Michael Cohen has presented this. Costello wants to give a different version of those events and Trump's lawyers are arguing to the judge right now, this is a central issue.

And the judge is kind of questioning, are you sure you want to go there? Are you sure you want to deal with this? Or is that kind of ancillary to this case that's fundamentally about whether or not Trump falsified these business records when it comes to the Stormy Daniels payment?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, so two things to note. One is this pressure campaign that Michael Cohen seemed to kind of get at during his testimony, essentially saying that Costello was reaching out to him on behalf of Rudy Giuliani, who at that point was working for former President Trump, at the time President Trump, and that any messages that were being sent were sent through Costello to Giuliani to get to Trump there.

Now again, Cohen tried to downplay his relationship with Costello, saying that he thought he was sketchy, that he barely talked to him, that he knew it was all going back to former President Donald Trump.

PHILLIP: I'm going to interrupt you for just a second because it looks like the judge has just ruled that Emil Bove, the defense council, can in fact question Bob Costello. We can expect him now to take the stand.

HOLMES: And one of the things that, you know, we talk about perjury here, and what Beauvais was essentially saying to the judge is that he can prove that Michael Cohen perjured himself. We assume, because we've heard Costello say this time and time again in various interviews, that he will testify to the fact that Michael Cohen never told him, or told him, that this wasn't something he did at the direction of Donald Trump, that it was something that he did because he was trying to take care of the former president. This is something Costello has said, again, over and over again in interviews, so it is likely what he's going to say on the stand today as well.

PHILLIP: And a key thing here, Judge Merchan, is putting some parameters on this. He's making it clear he's not comfortable with this idea of trying to make this case about that pressure campaign. He says, I am not going to allow this to become a trial within a trial.

He doesn't want this to devolve into a question about whether Michael Cohen is a liar or lied about this particular issue. It's got to have a point.

REID: And this can go off the rails really quickly. Rob Costello is a talker. I've been talking to him for nearly a decade. Especially when it comes to Michael Cohen, he can go on and on and on. So the judge is wise to try to limit the scope here to make sure this doesn't go on forever and that what he offers has relevance here.

Now, what I would expect will definitely come up is the fact that Rob Costello has repeatedly said that during their conversations, Michael Cohen told him, he was under enormous pressure, right, to come up with some sort of evidence of criminal wrongdoing related to then President Trump to help himself. Because he was under scrutiny by federal investigators.

And Cohen repeatedly told Costello that he had no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by then-President Trump. So it's interesting. Costello did not look at Trump's table when he walked to the witness stand.

A little bit of bad blood between the two of them because Costello still has millions of dollars in outstanding legal bills from Rudy Giuliani. And he, Costello and Giuliani, asked Trump for help with those. Costello still hasn't been paid.

But let me tell you, Costello is still 100 percent team Trump, and wants to do as much damage to Michael Cohen's credibility as he possibly can. I have a feeling he is quite excited to be on this witness stand.

PHILLIP: Yes, so he has now been sworn in, in this case. And we were talking in the break. This is not a one-and-done kind of thing. The defense doesn't just get to question their witness and call it a day. There will be a cross of Bob Costello and that's where this could get pretty messy.

HOLMES: Well, especially in terms of Bob Costello going off the rails, as you said. I mean, he's the talker, he can continue to go. But I will say one thing here. I mean, again, we're now in the he said, he said portion of this trial.

All of this is going to ultimately come down to who the jury believes. And now we're going to see Bob Costello taking the stand and going after Michael Cohen. Defense did not really have a witness to do that. Now they do.

PHILLIP: All right, Paula Reid, Kristen Holmes, thank you very much. We have much, much more of our special coverage of the Trump hush money trial after a quick break.



BLITZER: We're back with our breaking news coverage of Donald Trump's hush money criminal trial. Right now, Michael Cohen's former legal advisor, Robert Costello, is on the stand. With us now is jury consultant Richard Gabriel.

It's been a very chaotic day, Richard, as you well know. The prosecution has already rested. What is going through the jury's mind right now as the defense really tries to make its case?

RICHARD GABRIEL, TRIAL CONSULTANT: Well, the jury obviously is anticipating this because it's been a very long time Michael Cohen's on the stand. I think they have a pretty good idea of exactly where the prosecution has gone with this.

But really, this is about the defense strategy here. They want this to be all about Michael Cohen and not about Donald Trump. So they're focusing on Michael Cohen's credibility. But I think for the jury, it's really not necessarily about credibility. It's about character.

Is Michael Cohen the kind of guy that is going to fund this payment to Stormy Daniels to protect the president on his own? Or is he really doing it at the direction of Trump? That's really the issue I think that they're going to be narrowing in on. Of course, this could open up a lot of doors when Mr. Costello testifies.

BLITZER: In an effort to convince jurors that Trump falsified business records, as you know, this process is moving forward. The prosecution, as I said, has rested. The defense has not rested.

But they're looking to see if Trump falsified business records to cover up a payment to Stormy Daniels right before the 2016 presidential election. Do you think so far the prosecution has proved its case to the jury?

GABRIEL: I think they made a really good circumstantial case. I mean, they've had the elements of not only the evidentiary string or connecting pieces here, but they've also told a pretty good story. You've had, you know, Mr. -- basically our tabloid grandfather who testified about sort of the propaganda element of the campaign. They've had, you know, the incident itself, Stormy Daniels, who was a feisty, but, you know, clearly an opportunist. And then they've had Michael Cohen. And between the two of them, they've sort of dropped in a lot of what I consider to be more significant people, which are the correspondence, the communications, the evidence that really does link Donald Trump.

So I think they've made a pretty good case here. And I think what the defense has to do right now is see if how they can dismantle some of these pieces and basically characterize this as the rogue opportunism of Michael Cohen just to gain favor of Donald Trump.

BLITZER: The judge, Judge Merchan, has said he expects closing arguments to begin next week. What do you make of that timeline?

GABRIEL: Well, I think he's given an opportunity both for the defense to put on whatever case they're going to be putting on. And they may have a very short case, but also the prosecutors may have some rebuttal witnesses, depending upon what Mr. Costello says. And then I think, depending even if we end this week a little bit or a short case, but also the prosecutors may have some rebuttal witnesses, depending upon what Mr. Costello says.


And then I think, depending even if we end this week a little bit early, he's going to give both sides a real opportunity to, number one, make motions, and number two, really prepare their closing arguments in the case.

BLITZER: How do you think that jurors feel about this case getting dragged out a little bit longer with closing arguments happening next week?

GABRIEL: Well, I think they've been really attentive up until this point. I think they are a little bit tired, especially because it's a very long examination of Michael Cohen. But I think right now they sense that they're moving into the final stages. And especially the lawyers on this jury really, I think, are going to understand we're now in the final stage. So I think there's this anticipation. What ends up happening in the jury at this point is they are really formulating, what do they think is the story of this case. Taking both pieces from the prosecution's case and pieces from the defense's cross-examination so far in trying to create this puzzle picture of exactly what happened.

BLITZER: Richard Gabriel, thanks as usual for joining us. We appreciate it.

GABRIEL: No problem.

BLITZER: We'll have much more of our special coverage of the hush money trial of Donald Trump right after a very quick break.


BLITZER: We're back with our special live coverage of former President Trump's hush money criminal trial. More drama, dramatic drama unfolding today in court. The prosecution officially resting their case, their final witness. The former Trump fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen leaving the witness stand just a short time ago. The prosecution's star witness faced a searing cross-examination by the defense totaling eight hours over three days. There were several key moments in that testimony.

Cohen admitting to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the Trump organization. Cohen also testifying that it would benefit him financially if Trump were not convicted in this trial.


The defense is now calling their star witnesses in this trial including Robert Costello and a legal advisor who Michael Cohen was in frequent contact with during the timeline of events surrounding this case.

Judge Juan Merchan ruling just a short while ago that Costello can testify about potential, quote, inconsistent statements made by Cohen during his testimony.

Thanks very much for joining us. I'll be back later today 6 p.m. Eastern in "THE SITUATION ROOM." "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts right now.