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‘He’s playing with the most powerful man on the planet’

Jurors in Donald Trump’s hush money trial were shown a series of damning emails that appear to show Rudy Giuliani-linked attorney Robert Costello pressing Michael Cohen to stay loyal to the former president while the one-time “fixer” was under federal investigation.

In April 2018, Cohen’s office and home were raided by the FBI and his cellphones and documents were seized in connection to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Following the raid, Mr Costello suggested that Cohen should retain him as counsel, in what Cohen previously testified was part of a “pressure campaign” to keep him close to Mr Trump and prevent him from “flipping” against him.

On Tuesday, Mr Costello returned to the stand as Mr Trump’s final defense witness – and the historic trial’s final witness – just hours after he had been nearly tossed off the witness stand altogether for rolling his eyes at the judge.

Under cross-examination from the prosecution, Mr Costello was confronted with emails where he had called on Cohen to “get on the same page” and reminded him that he has “friends in high places.”

On May 2018, Mr Costello emailed his partner saying: “Our issue is to get Cohen on the right page without giving him the appearance that we are following instructions from Giuliani or the President.”

One month later on June 22, 2018 – two months before Cohen reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors – Mr Costello emailed an associate to complain that Cohen “continues to slow play us and the president.”

“Is he totally nuts?” Mr Costello wrote. “What should I say to this a******? “He’s playing with the most powerful man on the planet.”

“That email certainly speaks for itself, doesn’t it, Mr Costello?” asked Assistant District Attorney Susan Hoffinger.

A courtroom sketch depicts Assistant District Attorney Susan Hoffinger questioning Robert Costello on May 21 as Donald Trump and Justice Juan Merchan look on (REUTERS)

“Yes, it does,” Mr Costello replied.

Mr Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records for a series of invoices and checks to Cohen in 2017 that reimbursed him for a $130,000 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election.

Prosecutors allege Mr Trump unlawfully covered up potentially politically damaging information about his affairs to increase his chances of winning.

He has pleaded not guilty and denies having sex with Ms Daniels.

Cohen – who was then-President Trump’s personal attorney during the investigation – previously testified to and emails shown in court showed an apparent attempt from Mr Costello to open a “back channel” of communication between him, via Mr Giuliani, to Mr Trump.

In his testimony last week, Cohen described what he felt were Mr Costello’s “sketchy” attempts to strong-arm him into his service.

“This is part of the pressure campaign that, ‘everyone is lying to you, that you are still respected, the president still supports you, do not speak, do not listen to what the journalists or anyone is saying, and stay in the fold ,’” Cohen said last week. “’Don’t flip, don’t cooperate.’”

Cohen didn’t trust him, he said, yet he remained “loyal to Mr Trump.”

After conversations with his family, and what he described as a sense of obligation to his wife and children and “to the country,” Cohen said he came to a realization: “I made a decision that I would not lie for president Trump any longer .”

He ultimately pleaded guilty in August 2018 to campaign finance violations, tax evasion, and lying to Congress.

On the stand, Mr Costello repeatedly denied pressing Cohen to do anything, and claimed that he merely treated him as a client with his interests in mind and wasn’t chasing an opportunity to represent him. Cohen never signed a retainer agreement and never considered Mr Costello his attorney.

Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom next to his lawyer Todd Blanche shortly before the defense rested his case on Tuesday May 21 (AP)

Mr Costello claimed that he was merely trying “to get everyone on the same page because Cohen had been complaining incessantly, frankly, that Giuliani was making statements in the press that Cohen didn’t approve of.”

“I was encouraging Michael Cohen… to express any of his complaints, so that I could bring them to Giuliani and get them worked out whatever they were,” he said.

He called a question about whether he agreed to testify to Congress to “intimidate” Cohen “ridiculous.”

During a Republican-led House committee hearing last week, Mr Costello called Cohen “absolutely manic.”

“He was putting on quite a show,” Mr Costello testified on Monday as he described an initial meeting with Cohen in 2018. “He explained to us, two nights before, that he was on the roof of the Regency hotel and he was going to jump off and kill himself.”

On Monday, moments after Mr Costello took the stand, New York Justice Juan Merchan scolded the attorney for rolling his eyes, saying “ridiculous” and “jeez” and sighing heavily during objections in his testimony.

“You don’t like my rulings? You don’t say ‘jeez’,” he said. “You don’t roll your eyes. Do you understand that?”

As he was preparing to bring the jury back in, he fired off at Mr Costello one last time: “Are you staring at me down right now? “Clear the courtroom.”

A courtroom sketch depicts Justice Juan Merchan reprimanding Robert Costello during Donald Trump’s hush money trial on May 20 (AP)

With only attorneys and Mr Trump’s entourage in the courtroom, the judge warned that Mr Costello’s behavior could land him in contempt of court.

“If you try to stare me down one more time, I will remove you from the stand,” he said.

The defense remains its case – and Trump won’t testify

Mr Costello was the second – and final – witness called by the former president’s defense team.

After bringing up 19 witnesses over the last six weeks, Manhattan prosecutors rested their case on Monday.

Defense attorneys introduced only two witnesses, including Mr Costello, and closed their case on Tuesday morning.

Mr Trump – who repeatedly suggested he would take the stand in his defense, and falsely claimed that the trial gag order prevents him from doing so – failed to testify.

Closing arguments from both parties will begin on May 28.

Judge Merchan will then provide instructions to the jury before deliberations begin.

A verdict could be reached as early as May 29.

In one of his press conferences from the hallway outside the courtroom on Tuesday, steps away from the men’s bathroom, Mr Trump complained about the trial taking him away from his campaign schedule.

“I’d like to be out campaigning right now. But again, I’m going to be in here almost five weeks in court,” he said. “They have no case. There’s no crime. …It’s a kangaroo court. There’s never been anything like this that I’ve ever seen.”

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