Manafort Trial Day 1: Prosecutors say ex-Trump aide lied to fund ‘extravagant lifestyle’
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors painted former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in opening arguments Tuesday as a man with no qualms about committing tax evasion to fund his “extravagant lifestyle” by hiding at least $15 million in income earned from consulting work in Ukraine.
But Manafort’s defense team immediately shifted blame to the longtime lobbyist’s ex-deputy Rick Gates, who cut a plea deal and is cooperating with the government’s prosecution of his former business partner as well as the wider Trump-Russia investigation.
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“The foundation of the special counsel’s case rests squarely on the shoulders of Rick Gates,” defense attorney Tom Zehnle told jurors during his introduction to the trial, before surprising the packed courtroom by publicly claiming that Gates stole from Manafort.
“He embezzled millions of dollars from his longtime employer. He abused his position of trust,” Zehnle insisted. “Rick Gates hid his hand in the cookie jar, and he could not take the chance his gig would be found out.”
However, the prosecution contended that Manafort was clearly calling the shots, violating tax and banking laws in the process.
“A man in the courtroom believed the law did not apply to him — not the tax laws, not the banking laws,” prosecutor Uzo Asonye said. “That man is the defendant, Paul Manafort. … Paul Manafort placed himself and his money over the law.”
Asonye said Manafort was “paid handsomely” through more than 30 foreign bank accounts set up to take money from oligarchs funding the campaign of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. The prosecutor called Yanukovych Manafort’s “golden goose” and said the financial arrangements were too numerous to be the result of some oversight or error.
“The evidence will show that [Manafort] didn’t want to pay income tax on all of that income. … So, he didn’t,” Asonye said. “Paul Manafort did not just forget about one account with a few thousand dollars in it. He had millions in those accounts every single year.”
Bernie’s chief strategist takes the stand
Kicking off its case, Mueller’s team called as its first witness Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who crossed the aisle to work with Manafort over a key five-year period in Ukraine, culminating with Yanukovych’s 2010 election.
While Devine recently served as a key figure on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, the Mueller prosecutors didn’t bring that up during an hour of rapid-fire questioning that appeared aimed primarily at establishing Manafort’s presence in Ukraine.
Mueller prosecutor Greg Andres introduced a series of emails, invoices and political memos that he said were obtained from Devine via subpoena showing the work he did directly with Manafort, including advice on a Yanukovych victory speech. Asked about the materials, Devine said he had worked with Manafort on “probably hundreds” of television ads tied to Ukrainian political campaigns, including one proposal for the 2010 election there based on the opening montage from the television show “Mad Men.”
Devine also testified to his regular interactions with Manafort associates including Gates, who helped arrange his travels in Ukraine; Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-Ukrainian political consultant who was used frequently as a translator; and Tony Fabrizio, a South Florida-based pollster who joined late in the 2010 election cycle.
The Manafort-Devine political odd coupling was of interest to Manafort’s defense attorneys. During his opening statement, Zehnle explained to the jurors that Devine had advised Sanders, Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. John Kerry. Later, during Devine’s cross examination, Manafort attorney Richard Westling pressed the witness to concede he wasn’t often on Manafort’s side politically.
“That’s fair to say,” Devine responded.
During his appearance, Devine also said Manafort indicated to him that his political work in Ukraine was funded by one particular oligarch: Rinat Akhmetov, one of Yanukovych’s key backers.
Manafort’s overseas work featured
Evidence of Manafort’s taste for luxury cars, clothes and furnishings is expected to be a frequent topic at the trial, and the prosecutor gave a brief preview of that theme Tuesday, saying the veteran political operative used offshore accounts to pay for such items as a $21,000 watch and a $15,000 jacket “made from an ostrich.”
The prosecution’s talk of Manafort fulfilling his champagne wishes and caviar dreams drew a mild rebuke from U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III.
“It isn’t a crime to have a lot of money and be profligate in your spending,” the judge interjected, urging Asonye to focus on the elements of the 18 felony counts Manafort faces of tax fraud, bank fraud and failing to report overseas accounts.
In addition to pointing the finger at Gates, Manafort’s defense argued that their client has a noble record of public service.
“Paul Manafort has been involved at the pinnacle of U.S. politics for nearly 40 years and during those years has advised multiple presidential candidates,” Zehnle said. “Paul Manafort has rendered valuable service to our system of government.”
Trump campaign work goes unmentioned
There was no mention in the opening statements of Manafort’s work running Trump’s campaign, nor even of the fact that Manafort is a Republican.
However, Manafort’s team moved to mitigate any political grudge that jurors might hold against him by noting that overseas consulting work often draws a diverse set of Americans.
“Such international consulting is not a partisan endeavor,” Zehnle said.
Asonye, who was first to argue to the jury, sought to head off the defense’s efforts to tar Gates as unreliable because of his guilty pleas and the deal he cut with prosecutors. The prosecutor insisted that there is ample documentation of Manafort’s tax and bank fraud.
“None of this happened by accident,” Asonye said. “Shell companies don’t create themselves. … Bank records don’t falsify themselves.”
While Gates has already acknowledged his guilt in the tax evasion and bank fraud scheme Manafort is charged with, Asonye indicated that multiple people knowingly took part in illegal activity. But he did not name anyone besides Gates.
“The evidence will show they all understood they were breaking the law,” the prosecutor said.
Jury selection wraps quickly
The opening statements, running about a half hour for each side, came shortly after six men and six women from Northern Virginia were selected to serve as jurors in the case. The judge, Mueller’s prosecutors and Manafort’s defense attorneys spent about four hours whittling down a group of about 65 people summoned to the federal courthouse in Alexandria. Four alternates were also chosen.
Manafort had seemed subdued at recent court appearances, but he grew active during jury selection, exchanging notes and frequently consulting with his lawyers about whom to keep and whom to strike from the jury pool. The jurors are expected to spend roughly the next three weeks hearing evidence and testimony related to bank- and tax-fraud charges against the longtime GOP lobbyist and political consultant.