Along came Robert Costello: Trump's crime boss maneuvering blows up in court

In an attempt to avoid testifying, Trump pushed an underling onto the stand who just undermined his whole case

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 22, 2024 9:33AM (EDT)

Robert Costello and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Robert Costello and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

On the last day of testimony in Trump's hush-money trial, a dozen or so grasping Trump sycophants dressed in the official elite MAGA uniforms of a red tie and blue suit (the troops wear the red hats) all gathered in the Manhattan courthouse to show their solidarity with their Dear Leader. The group included Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who weirdly excoriated "the ruling class" of which he and Donald Trump are very much members. "Saturday Night Live" alum Joe Piscopo showed up, as did former White House physician and current oddball congressman Ronny Jackson. Donald Trump Jr. was there for the first time as well, apparently inspired to attend as a MAGA follower rather than a family member in support of his father. It's become a daily self-abnegation ritual for those yearning to be on the inside of Trumpworld and that apparently includes his own son.

If it weren't for the boring blue suits and red ties, the daily tableau would be more reminiscent of a criminal gang than a political party. The groveling for the attention and approbation of "the Boss," the willingness to do absolutely anything for him (under threat of excommunication or worse), and the macho posturing and preening for each other and the public all look like mobbed-up behavior. In fact, one member of the group was an ex-con named Chuck Zito, founder of the New York Nomads chapter of the Hell's Angels, which was linked to the Gambino mafia crime family. He obviously felt quite at home. He showed up two days in a row.

Trump himself has often drawn comparisons of himself to mob bosses, proudly declaring that he's been indicted more than the "the late, great Alphonse Capone" all over the campaign trail. At his rallies, Trump often makes the point that Capone "was seriously tough" as if to say he's even tougher. Tim O'Brien, one of Trump's biographers, has said that Trump openly admires figures such as New York crime boss John Gotti and he's now it appears he's using some of Gotti's tactics in court

The thing he respected about Gotti was that he … sat there in court and he looked at the jurors and he looked at the judge with a big F-U on his face.

He's selling that mug shot F-U on t-shirts which the MAGA faithful have turned into their version of the Che Guevara shirt. 

Underlying all this is something serious, however. The threats to judges, prosecutors, witnesses and jurors are very real and the courts where Trump is being tried are all having to put in place protections, including a gag order, to keep the former president from threatening people. He was sanctioned 10 times for violating the order in his current case until he came up with the novel tactic of having his red-tied capos do the threatening for him. He even got the Speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisana, to go before the cameras and personally put the judge's daughter in the cross hairs.

Tuesday marked the end of the presentation of evidence in the Trump hush money trial. All that's left is the summations, scheduled for next Tuesday and then deliberations will begin. Trump had boasted repeatedly that he was going to testify but, of course, he didn't. He hasn't explained why just yet but I'm sure he'll come up with an absurd excuse eventually. In reality, even he knows it would have been a terrible idea because it would have required him to studiously prepare and he can't do that. So he did the next best thing. 

Along came Robert Costello to turn the whole thing upside down by making Michael Cohen seem like a nice honest fellow by comparison.

Last week he no doubt saw a lawyer by the name of Robert Costello testify before a hastily called hearing before the House subcommittee on the "Weaponization of the Federal Government." Republicans brought in Costello to slam Michael Cohen, who was in the midst of a days-long examination in Trump's trial. He claimed that he was Cohen's attorney for two months and that "virtually every statement he made about me was another lie.” 

At the time, most people didn't believe the defense would call Costello because the lawyers knew he would be a terrible witness but after his bravura performance, it's fair to guess that Trump pushed them to call him. It would be the next best thing to having Trump on the stand himself. Unfortunately for Trump, just like the goombahs in the red-ties, Costello was preening for the boss and Trump couldn't tell the difference. As with his good friend Giuliani, he's just an out-of-his-depth tough guy way past his sell-by date. His performance on the stand this week was a disaster.

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Costello insulted the judge and caused a scene, almost getting cited for contempt. He was rude to the prosecutor, ordering her to speak into the microphone as if he was in charge of the courtroom. The judge even cleared the courtroom briefly to admonish him.

Trump probably thought he did great though and showed them who was boss. But the consensus is that Costello did very serious damage to the defense with his testimony. Trump's lawyers had done a pretty good job of dirtying up prosecution witness Michael Cohen over the course of a grueling cross-examination and the prosecution had rested on a bit of a sour note. And then along came Costello to turn the whole thing upside down by making Cohen seem like a nice honest fellow by comparison. 

Emails between Costello and Cohen were read aloud to leave the indelible memory in the minds of the jurors that Trump and Giuliani were conspiring with Costello to make sure Cohen didn't cooperate with the government. There is even an email from Costello to Cohen saying, "Rudy said this communication channel must be maintained...sleep well tonight, you have friends in high places," and one from Costello to his law partner saying, "Our issue is to get Cohen on the right page without giving the appearance that we are following instructions from Giuliani or the President," (which they clearly were.) When Cohen didn't sign on with him right away he told his law partner Cohen was "slow-playing us and the President...What should I say to this asshole? He's playing with the most powerful man on the planet." Didn't he know who he was messing with?

Cohen had testified that he never retained Costello because he didn't trust him. It turns out he was right. By the end of the cross-examination, the prosecution had turned the defense argument that Cohen was just seeking revenge against Trump because he didn't get a job in the White House to Costello seeking revenge against Cohen for refusing to hire him to defend him and make him valuable to Donald Trump. 

Trump the mob boss has always been careful not to put anything in writing and to speak in code to underlings so he never gets caught giving direct orders. Unfortunately, his soldiers aren't quite as careful. This one got him in real trouble by making it very clear that Donald Trump had leaned on Michael Cohen to keep his mouth shut. Why would an innocent man do such a thing? 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Commentary Donald Trump Hush-money Trial Michael Cohen Robert Costello Trump Trials