Judge Juan Merchan, left, castigates witness Robert Costello about his...

Judge Juan Merchan, left, castigates witness Robert Costello about his courtroom “decorum” in Manhattan criminal court Monday. Credit: AP/Elizabeth Williams

Long Island was abundantly represented in this week’s cast of characters for the Donald Trump hush-money trial in Manhattan.

The judge, Acting State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, is a graduate of Hofstra Law School in Uniondale who, while a deputy and assistant state attorney general, had for years handled litigation in the office’s Nassau County region.

Merchan’s chiding of a defense witness, lawyer Robert Costello of Manhasset, this week made for one of the most unusual aspects of the first criminal trial of an ex-U.S. president. Their clash had a distinctly regional accent marbled into it.

The Trump team called Costello to rebut testimony by key witness Michael Cohen, a product of Lawrence, with whom Costello earlier had a professional relationship. He’d offered to represent ex-“fixer” Cohen at a time Cohen faced a decision on how much to cooperate with authorities who’d raided his home and office.

Costello denied an attempt to intimidate Cohen. “Ridiculous. No,” he told a prosecutor questioning him. Merchan sustained a prosecution’s objection to a defense question. “Jeez,” Costello audibly blurted. After another sustained objection, he reportedly made a “pfft” noise.

Merchan, once of Jackson Heights, made it clear he’d heard enough of this. “If you don't like my ruling, you don't say 'jeez.' You don't say 'strike it.' Because I'm the only one who can strike testimony,” he told the witness. “If you don't like my ruling, you don't give me side eye and you don't roll your eyes. Do you understand that? Do you understand that?” Costello said he did.

Merchan soon asked in a raised voice, “Are you staring me down right now?” He ordered the courtroom cleared and warned Costello more emphatically about his “contemptuous” behavior. In spirit, it was as if Costello had cut off Merchan while exiting the Southern State, then flipped him off at the stoplight.

The narrowly gag-ordered Trump, from Jamaica Estates, then went outside after Costello’s sideshow and railed against Merchan. Did you really expect him to curb his petulance?

Costello has been a go-to attorney in the Trump circle. Last September, he sued former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, whom he claimed owed $1.4 million for representation in a number of cases.

Giuliani, raised in Garden City South, responded then: “It's a real shame when lawyers do things like this, and all I will say is that their bill is way in excess to anything approaching legitimate fees.”

Then there’s Allen Weisselberg, the former chief financial officer of The Trump Organization. Some expected him to be called as a defense witness, but the defense rested after Costello finished. Weisselberg was convicted of tax fraud in 2021 for which he served time and for perjury in 2024. He lived for decades in a modest ranch-style house in Wantagh before moving with his wife to The Trump Organization’s Riverside South apartments in Manhattan.

Closing arguments are slated for Tuesday. Some attention is already turning to other Trump prosecutions. New details are emerging about classified documents stowed at Mar-a-Lago; election-interference cases are pending in Washington and Georgia.

Years ago, a journalist quipped that Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk make up a regional “confrontation belt” — as surely as southern and western states make up the “Bible Belt.” None of the other Trump prosecutions is likely to match, for local flavor, this soon-to-be-decided Stormy Daniels hush-money case.

Columnist Dan Janison's opinions are his own.


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