Manafort prosecution’s frustration with judge leads to fiery clashes

 In Politics

The Manafort trial is shown in an artist’s drawing.  | AP

This courtroom sketch depicts Paul Manafort, seated second from right; his lawyers; the jury, seated left; and U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III, back center. Prosecutor Uzo Asonye is showing making his opening arguments in the center. | Dana Verkouteren via AP

For days, U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis has been cracking the whip at prosecutors in the Paul Manafort fraud trial, prodding them again and again to keep the case moving forward and to drop matters he considers irrelevant.

Prosecutors’ frustration with those exhortations spilled out publicly Monday in a series of prickly clashes in which Ellis snapped at one of special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, Greg Andres, and Andres sometimes lashed back at the judge — something lawyers rarely do.

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The day’s first significant altercation came as Andres sought to question Manafort’s former deputy, Rick Gates, about his travels, using his passport as a visual aid.

“Let’s go to the heart of the matter,” Ellis said.

“Judge, we’ve been at the heart. …” Andres replied, before the judge cut him off.

“Just listen to me. … Don’t speak while I’m speaking,” the judge said, sharply. He added that he didn’t see how the testimony on travel “amounts to a hill of beans” with regard to the charges against Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman.

The judge urged the two sides to agree on what dates Gates or Manafort traveled to Ukraine, to avoid tedious testimony. Ellis wondered aloud why that hadn’t been done before. The question seemed rhetorical, but Andres went ahead and answered it, somewhat snarkily.

“For one, no one’s asked for that before,” Andres said.

“I am,” Ellis shot back. “I’d like to find ways to expedite the trial in this matter.”

“We’ve done everything we can to move the trial along. And I think we’ve succeeded,” Andres insisted.

The clashes with the judge were unusual and could be risky, since some of them took place with the jury in the room. If jurors defer to the judge, they may view the prosecution as being out of line and overly aggressive. On the other hand, the protests allow the government lawyers a chance to display some passion about their case.

Minutes after the exchange about the passport, tensions flared again, after the judge took issue with a question that led to Gates’ giving a long answer about Ukraine’s political system.

The interruption clearly rankled Andres, who suggested that the judge was putting a straitjacket on the government’s case by constantly asking for agreements on what was and wasn’t in dispute between the prosecution and the defense.

“There has not been a single admission by the defense on any matter in this case,” Andres complained.

“We need to focus sharply,” the judge declared. “It certainly doesn’t help to offer the history of Ukrainian politics.”

The judge asked Andres whether he planned more such questions. The prosecutor didn’t seem to answer immediately but, after prodding by the judge, said, “No.”

Andres sought to press the issue, which led to Ellis shouting: “Next question. … Next question, Sir!”

The prosecutor demanded a sidebar conference out of earshot of the jury, which lasted about eight minutes.

When court resumed, the judge said calmly to the jury: “I didn’t exclude anything.”

Testimony continued for about another 10 minutes, before the jury was excused for the day. Then the fireworks began again.

Ellis said he wanted to give Andres an “opportunity to educate me” about the usefulness of the testimony about Ukraine’s political system and why wealthy individuals were paying millions of dollars to back Manafort’s work as a political consultant.

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