Manafort trial Day 8: Judge concedes fault after Mueller protest, Airbnb exec takes the stand
The federal judge overseeing the Paul Manafort trial conceded Thursday morning that he made a mistake in chastising special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors a day earlier in front of the jury.
Addressing the jurors before prosecutors called their first witness of the day, U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis said he “may well have been wrong” on Wednesday when he slammed the Mueller team for allowing an expert witness from the IRS to remain in the courtroom while other witnesses were testifying.
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Typically, witnesses aren’t supposed to hear anyone else’s testimony in a trial so they don’t influence each other, but Mueller’s team got Ellis’ permission during the trial’s opening arguments last week to have the IRS agent in the court on a regular basis.
“This robe doesn’t make me anything other than human,” Ellis told the court on Thursday morning after instructing the jury to forget what he had said to the Mueller team about the IRS witness. “You’ve got to put that aside.”
Mueller’s team has been frustrated by repeated slapdowns from Ellis during the Manafort trial — now in its eighth day. Before court started on Thursday morning, they filed a written motion to formally protest how they had been called out over the IRS witness.
The Mueller team asked Ellis to explain to the jury that the prosecution had done nothing wrong and cited a transcript of the first day of the trial last week showing that prosecutor Uzo Asonye specifically asked that witnesses be excluded “with the exception of our expert and our [FBI] case agent.” The judge and the prosecutor went on to discuss Michael Welch by name and his expertise. And the judge unmistakably approved the exception.
“The Court mistakenly faulted the government for permitting IRS revenue agent Michael Welch, the government’s expert witness, to remain in the courtroom during the proceedings, when in fact on the first day of trial the Court had expressly granted the government’s motion to do so,” prosecutors complained in their motion. “The Court’s reprimand of government counsel suggested to the jury—incorrectly—that the government had acted improperly and in contravention of Court rules. This prejudice should be cured.”
Ellis chastised Asonye in court on Wednesday moments after he called Welch to the stand. “It’s my clear recollection….that I wasn’t admitting experts,” Ellis said. “You need to ask specifically. You’re going to go ahead now, I’m going to permit that, but I want you to remember that.”
Asonye responded that prosecutors would “check the transcript,” but it was their belief that they specifically asked for permission to allow expert witnesses like Welch to remain in the courtroom despite the usual prohibition.
“Well, let me be clear: I don’t care what the transcript says,” Ellis snapped, before backing down a little. “Maybe I made a mistake. But I want you to remember don’t do that again. When I exclude witnesses, I mean everybody. Now, it may be that I didn’t make that clear.”
The judge’s tone suggested he was disturbed by the prosecutors’ actions, although he eventually declared, “It’s not a big deal.”
In their letter, Mueller’s team said that the judge’s action left a “negative impression” of them. “The Court’s sharp reprimand of government counsel in front of the jury on August 8 was…erroneous. And, while mistakes are a natural part of the trial process, the mistake here prejudiced the government,” Mueller’s team wrote, asking Ellis to tell jurors he was mistaken and the prosecution did nothing wrong.
Before the jury came in Thursday but after the session began, Asonye asked Ellis to address the issue. The judge snapped, “Alright, I’m going to take care of that.”
The judge’s slap at the prosecution on Wednesday over the expert witness issue was just the latest in a series of rebukes he’s delivered to Mueller’s squad in recent days over topics ranging from body language to excessive informality to efforts to introduce visual imagery of Manafort’s lavish lifestyle. The prickly exchanges have clearly begun to grate on the prosecution team, which has sometimes protested verbally in court, but did not formally lodge a written objection before Thursday.
On Wednesday, Ellis scolded prosecutor Greg Andres for responding to the court’s questions with terms the judge considered too casual, like “yeah” or “yup.”
“Be careful about that,” he told Andres. “This is not an informal proceeding.”
Andres slipped up again moments later, offering a “yup” in response to another question from the judge.
“I beg your pardon?” Ellis intoned, his irritation evident.
“Yes, Judge,” Andres answered.
Ellis has sometimes faulted defense attorneys, but that has been more rare. On the other hand, the prosecution has been doing most of the heavy lifting thus far as the government presents its case, with the defense’s opportunity to call witnesses expected next week.
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