Risks pile up for Trump as Manafort heads to trial
The first trial prosecuted by special counsel Robert Mueller will offer the clearest public view yet of what his investigators have on President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, with a catalogue of evidence and testimony undercutting the president’s repeated claims that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt.”
Trump, his lawyers and some of his closest associates have spent months publicly dismissing the Manafort case, scheduled to begin this week in an Alexandria, Virginia, federal court. They argue it’s all about the personal legal woes of someone who has lobbied for some of the world’s most controversial leaders but has nothing to do with the president or his 2016 campaign.
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“We have no concern about it,” Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal attorneys, told POLITICO. “The whole case will be like everything else. They chase it down an alley until they think they’ve got something legitimate, and it will not connect to the original investigation.”
But the Manafort trial will create daily reminders of the Mueller investigation, as commentators pile onto cable networks to discuss what the case could indicate about the president’s own exposure — and, potentially, as the president himself offers his own analysis on Twitter.
Whether he addresses it publicly or not, Trump will have to pay close attention given the array of legal investigations involving various former associates, said Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard law professor who is close to Trump. “Of course the president has to watch. He has to watch everything Mueller is doing,” he said. Dershowitz specifically mentioned the Southern District of New York, the federal jurisdiction that’s investigating Michael Cohen, the longtime Trump Organization personal lawyer, who has dropped hints he may cooperate with the government.
Mueller’s office has said it does not intend to raise Russian collusion allegations, but it has signaled plans to showcase aspects of Manafort’s work during the Trump campaign: namely a claim that he succeeded in getting $16 million in loans from Chicago’s Federal Savings Bank in late 2016 and early 2017 in part because the bank’s chairman and CEO, Stephen Calk, was named to the Trump campaign’s economic advisory board and was seeking a top post at the Pentagon.
Through a spokeswoman, the bank has denied any wrongdoing and pledged to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation. Calk has not responded to requests for comment.
Mueller’s prosecutors in June also unsealed search warrant applications in the Virginia case showing Manafort and his wife received a $10 million loan in 2010 from Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In July 2016, Manafort used a longtime associate who has also since been indicted by Mueller as an intermediary to reportedly offer “private briefings” for Deripaska about the Trump campaign.
U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III, a Ronald Reagan appointee, has yet to rule on what, if any, mention of the campaign will be allowed in front of jurors. The issue is among those on the agenda for a hearing set for Monday morning, about 48 hours before jury selection is set to begin in the trial.
Manafort’s defense team has asked Ellis to forbid any mention of Manafort’s connection to Trump and his campaign. They argue that discussion of that work and of Mueller’s core assignment to investigate alleged collusion between the campaign and Russia is “wholly irrelevant” to the bank fraud and tax evasion charges. They also fear that references to Manafort’s Trump campaign role could prompt jurors who dislike the president to take that out on Manafort, regardless of what the evidence shows.
“There is a very real risk that the jurors in this case — most of whom likely have strong views about President Trump, or have likely formed strong opinions as to the well-publicized allegations that the campaign colluded with Russian officials — will be unable to separate their opinions and beliefs about those matters from the tax and bank fraud matters to be tried before them in this case,” the defense wrote in a pretrial motion filed last month.
The president himself has made little effort to conceal his close attention to the case, repeatedly mentioning it since Manafort was indicted last October.
Less than two hours after Manafort lost his release on bail amid allegations of witness tampering in June, Trump tweeted: “Wow, what a tough sentence for Paul Manafort, who has represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other top political people and campaigns. Didn’t know Manafort was the head of the Mob. What about Comey and Crooked Hillary and all of the others? Very unfair!”
Manafort was also on Trump’s mind in the aftermath of his controversial summit last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “With Paul Manafort, who clearly is a nice man, you look at what’s going on with him, it’s like Al Capone,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in an interview from Helsinki.
Trump’s interest in the Manafort’s case has also extended to pretrial legal skirmishes, with the president himself taking the unusual step of celebrating media reports about a hearing during which Ellis grilled Mueller’s prosecutors about a defense motion challenging the special counsel’s authority.