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Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters
“This trial is a gold mine in terms of campaigning for Trump,” Ty Cobb, a former White House lawyer, told NOTUS. Win McNamee/AP

How Trump’s Star Witness May Have Undermined His Case but Helped His Campaign

“The jury knows the witness acted out after his testimony was struck, and the jury will likely assume that this witness is not being truthful,” said one defense attorney.

Lawyer Robert Costello’s testimony in Donald Trump’s historic New York criminal trial was likely to leave the jury “pissed off,” experts told NOTUS — but outside the courtroom, supporters claimed another win for the former president as Trump sows public distrust in the justice system.

Costello, a Trump ally who gave legal advice to Michael Cohen in 2018, was one of only two witnesses called by the defense, and he testified that Cohen had assured him privately Trump knew nothing about the payments to prevent Stormy Daniels from going public about her alleged affair with Trump. But his testimony took a strange twist: Costello sighed loudly and made snide remarks as prosecutors objected to his testimony, causing the judge to order the jury and press out of the courtroom and reprimand the witness.

“That interaction had a very detrimental effect on that witness’s testimony,” criminal defense lawyer J. Craig Williams told NOTUS. “The jury knows the witness acted out after his testimony was struck, and the jury will likely assume that this witness is not being truthful since he got into such a fight with the judge.”

The shocking exchange put the contrasting politics inside and outside the courtroom on full display. While experts were certain the episode would only hurt Trump’s case in the jury’s eyes, Trumpworld saw something different: the latest proof point of the weaponization of the criminal justice system against the former president.

Donald Trump Jr. reacted on X to a news clip regarding Costello’s testimony that Trump “knew nothing” about Cohen’s payments: “Seems like a really big deal! Perhaps it explains in part why the judge cleared the court... The testimony is a disaster for the sham prosecution.”

Eric Trump, another of the ex-president’s sons, weighed in on X too: “The judge’s treatment of Bob Costello is truly disgraceful - he will not allow him to tell his story - the same story he told Congress - as he knows it will be devastating and end this sham trial. This is not justice!”

Politics aside, Costello’s outbursts could have real, negative consequences for the former president, according to plaintiffs’ attorneys who have handled high-profile cases and a former federal judge.

Trump’s lawyers likely called Costello to the stand to weaken Cohen’s argument that Trump both knew about the payments and directed Cohen to make them. The testimony stood to undermine Cohen, the prosecution’s star witness.

But it’s Costello’s conduct throughout his testimony that stood out in the closing days of witnesses in the trial, and it may have negative consequences for the former president, experts say.

“In my personal experience, after every jury trial, without exception, every jury was pissed off at any witness or lawyer who was disrespectful to the judge,” Stephen Orlofsky, a former federal judge in the District of New Jersey, told NOTUS. “They didn’t like people who were disrespectful, period. I’m sure that that’s going to play in the minds of these jurors.”

But all the attention is probably a great benefit for the Republican presidential nominee, attorneys said. Whether it’s limiting Donald Trump’s speech about folks connected to the case, threatening him with jail time for gag order violations or reprimanding the witness speaking in his favor, inconveniences to Trump in the courtroom now make up a portion of his campaign messaging. He has also fundraised from these incidents.

“This trial is a gold mine in terms of campaigning for Trump,” Ty Cobb, ex-Trump White House lawyer, told NOTUS. “He’ll continue to use [Judge Juan] Merchan in his own political battle and has already done so effectively in the minds of his supporters.”

“The theory that Trump could be out campaigning and doing himself a greater benefit on the campaign trail is, quite frankly, a canard. He and other Republican politicians have clearly woken up to that,” added Cobb.

Republicans in Congress have been making the not-so-glamorous journey to New York to experience the historic trial in person. They’ve also seized the opportunity to show the public their loyalty to Trump, forming an entourage of sorts. Many took to the cameras after holding brief press conferences to denounce the hush money trial and the justice system.

“A lot of [Trump supporters] are buying into the idea that this is a weaponization of the system, so of course, they’ll keep drawing attention to it,” Orlofsky said.

The jury is oblivious to the show playing out outside the courtroom. Merchan has instructed the jury not to “Google or otherwise search for any information about the case” or “communicate with anyone about the case by any means.” Though the jury saw Costello’s friction with Merchan and sparring with the prosecutors for themselves, Merchan excused them before scolding him privately.

Closing arguments in the hush money case are expected as early as next week. Having no burden of proof as the defendant, Trump is projecting confidence about the case.

“I’m feeling very good,” Trump told reporters while walking out of the courtroom after his attorneys rested their case. “Every review that has been done of the case so far says there is no crime; it should have never been brought. It should be dismissed before you even have a verdict.”

Calen Razor is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.