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Trump's former campaign chairman faces trial in first court test of special counsel prosecution

Trump's former campaign chairman faces trial in first court test of special counsel prosecution
The trial of Paul Manafort, pictured here at the Republican National Convention in 2016, is scheduled to start Wednesday in Alexandria, Va. (Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call / TNS)

With his well-coiffed hair, tailored suits and keen ability to charm the powerful, Paul S. Manafort spent decades wheeling and dealing with U.S. politicians and foreign despots before he became Donald Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016 and ran the Republican National Convention.

As a Republican political strategist, he had helped run successful campaigns for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. As a lobbyist and consultant, he had pocketed tens of millions of dollars working for autocratic leaders, warlords and kleptocrats in such far-flung locales as Angola, Zaire, the Philippines and Ukraine.

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Manafort, 69, is about to face his toughest challenge yet — winning over a federal judge and jury in Alexandria, Va. He’s scheduled to go on trial Wednesday on allegations of bank fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy in the first courtroom showdown over charges brought by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Although Manafort was ensnared by the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, he wasn’t accused of election-related crimes. But prosecutors say his scheme extended through his time working for Trump — and according to a motion filed on July 6, the campaign “is relevant and inextricably intertwined” with one of the charges against Manafort.

Prosecutors say Manafort fraudulently obtained $16 million in two loans from a financial institution where an executive sought a role on the Trump campaign and, if he won, the administration. The executive, who was not named in the court filing, served as a campaign advisor but did not end up working in government. The bank was not named.

But for those hoping the case will finally reveal — or permanently dispel — a broader and more insidious conspiracy are likely to be disappointed. In the same court filing, prosecutors said, “The government does not intend to present at trial evidence or argument concerning collusion with the Russian government.”

Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges and has fought every step of the way. Even if he’s acquitted, however, he faces a second trial in September on related charges, including failing to register as a lobbyist for a foreign government, in Washington, D.C.

Once the trial starts, Mueller’s team has amassed so much evidence it could take more than a week to present their case. In a July 6 filing, they gave the court a 20-page list of more than 500 pieces of evidence they might use at trial. It includes Manafort’s loan documents, personal financial statements and bank records from Cyprus, St. Vincent and the United Kingdom.

Prosecutors also may showcase how Manafort used his wealth, submitting photos of his expensive suits and invoices from hefty purchases from his allegedly ill-gotten gains. Manafort’s indictment said he had spent $934,000 on antique rugs, $1.4 million at men’s clothing stores and $5.4 million for renovations at his beach home in the Hamptons, an affluent area on Long Island, N.Y.

The evidence list also includes dozens of emails involving Manafort and former business partners like Richard W. Gates III, who also worked on Trump’s campaign. Gates pleaded guilty earlier this year to false statements and conspiracy for participating in Manafort’s schemes, and he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Also on tap are five potential witnesses who have not been publicly identified. Prosecutors have asked District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III, who is presiding over the case, to grant immunity to the five so they could testify without fear of self-incrimination. The prosecutors said they kept the names secret because “the information contained in the motions could lead to reputational harm” to people who aren’t facing criminal charges.

Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, a critical juncture in the race. Trump was winning Republican primaries but appeared in danger of losing delegates needed to lock down the party’s nomination without a floor fight. Manafort helped stanch the bleeding.

That May, he was named campaign chairman and chief strategist. A month later, his influence grew further after Trump fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who had openly sparred with Manafort. During the Republican National Convention that July, Manafort held daily briefings for the media and defended Melania Trump after she was accused of plagiarizing former First Lady Michelle Obama in her convention speech.

His position began unraveling in August, barely five months after he joined the campaign, after the New York Times reported that investigators were looking into $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments to Manafort from former Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovich, and the Associated Press reported he helped a pro-Russian party in Ukraine funnel money to lobbying firms in Washington, D.C.

Yanukovich fled to Russia after he was ousted during violent protests in 2014. One of Manafort’s business partners in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik, is alleged to have ties to Russian intelligence.

Michael Dreeben, a lawyer in Mueller’s office, said in April that investigators started looking into Manafort to determine whether any of his Russian connections provided a “back channel” between Trump’s campaign and Russia. They found no such evidence, he said.

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The White House tried to distance itself from Manafort even before he was indicted last October. Seven months earlier, Sean Spicer, then the president’s spokesman, had downplayed Manafort’s role in the campaign, saying he “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”

The trial judge, who was nominated to the bench by Reagan in 1987, has been willing to slash at both sides during pre-trial hearings.

During a contentious hearing in May, Ellis challenged Mueller’s authority to bring charges against Manafort and suggested he was simply trying to pressure the defendant to provide evidence against the president.

“You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” Ellis said. “What you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment.”

Trump was delighted by the judge’s comments, reading a news story aloud during a speech to the National Rifle Assn. and complaining about the “phony Russia witch hunt.”

A month later, Ellis rejected Manafort’s motion to dismiss the case and let the prosecution proceed to trial. But he added a stiff warning.

“Although this case will continue, those involved should be sensitive to the danger unleashed when political disagreements are transformed into partisan prosecutions,” he wrote.

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Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who worked with Ellis in the 1970s, said the judge is not one to hold his tongue.

“He says what he thinks often from the bench,” he said. “Some judges are more reserved.”

Tobias added, “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

Manafort enters the trial already on a losing streak in court.

In June, the judge in the Washington case revoked his $10-million bail and ordered him jailed while awaiting trial after prosecutors said he had sought to tamper with witnesses. His lawyers also failed to convince Ellis to suppress evidence seized from a storage unit or get a change of venue to southern Virginia, where jurors might be more sympathetic to a former Trump aide.

Ellis also ordered Manafort transferred from a rural jail about 100 miles away, where he wanted to stay, to the Alexandria Detention Center, which is closer to the courthouse.

Prosecutors had told the court that in the rural jail, Manafort’s cell had a private toilet and shower, that he was allowed to use a laptop and that he had boasted on a recorded call that he was being treated like a VIP. Ellis made clear that Manafort’s creature comforts were not his concern.

“The professionals at the Alexandria Detention Center are very familiar with housing high-profile defendants, including foreign and domestic terrorists, spies and traitors,” Ellis wrote in his order.

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