Paul Manafort’s trial begins: The charges don’t involve politics; the trial can’t avoid it
Bank fraud. Tax evasion. Conspiracy. The charges Paul Manafort faces in a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., are largely unremarkable for a white-collar criminal case.
Yet Manafort’s case is anything but normal — starting with the fact that it is scheduled to go to trial at all.
President Trump’s former campaign chairman is the first person to stand trial on charges brought by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Jury selection is scheduled to get underway Tuesday and is expected to proceed swiftly. Opening statements could start as early as Tuesday afternoon.
The charges Manafort faces are mostly not connected to his work for the Trump campaign, and the prosecution has said that it does not intend to present evidence regarding Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election or any potential collusion between the Russians and Trump or his associates.
Still, an unavoidable political subtext accompanies Manafort’s case.
“There’s the special counsel, a very high-profile defendant and the specter of the president hanging over the trial,” said Edward MacMahon, a longtime attorney in Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
The charges stem from Manafort’s role as a consultant for the former Ukranian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and alleged criminal schemes Manafort used to hide the money he earned. In a court filing Monday, prosecutors said Manafort earned more than $60 million from his work in Ukraine.
Manafort funneled his wealth into ostentatious purchases, including nearly a million dollars spent on antique rugs, over half a million dollars to landscape his vacation home in the Hamptons on Long Island, N.Y., and millions more for home renovations, men’s clothing and expensive cars, the government alleges.
When Yanukovych was ousted in 2014 and Manafort’s income from that work tapered off, he turned to bank fraud, prosecutors say.
Manafort’s decision, so far, to risk a trial on those allegations has surprised many legal experts. The vast majority of white-collar criminal cases are settled without the defendant standing trial, said Georgetown Law School professor Paul Butler, who previously worked as a federal prosecutor. Typically, he would anticipate “a system of plea bargaining in a case like this where the prosecution will have lots of paper evidence to support its charge,” he added.
But Manafort has decided to stand not just one, but two trials. In October, he was indicted in Washington, D.C., on charges that include acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. In February, he was indicted in Alexandria on the charges he faces in the current trial.
The Washington case is scheduled to be tried in September. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Prosecutors gave him the option of combining his separate indictments for a single trial, but Manafort’s defense team rejected that.
Generally, a defendant would attempt to avoid racking up legal bills with multiple trials, but Manafort appears to have the resources necessary to fund his defense, said Cynthia Najdowski, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Albany’s School of Criminal Justice. Splitting up the trials may be a legal strategy to prevent the government from stacking up all the charges together, she added.
Whether Mueller has a broader interest in prosecuting Manafort remains unknown. The judge presiding over the trial said during a hearing earlier this year that he believed Mueller had brought the case to force Manafort to “sing” about Trump.
The case seemed to be an effort to “turn the screws and get the information you really want,” Judge T.S. Ellis III said in May. So far, there’s been no sign that Manafort has offered any testimony about Trump.
“It could be that they think this case is a gateway to other cases,” Butler said, referring to the special counsel prosecutors. “I don’t think Mueller would justify all these resources on this trial but for some nexus that he knows about, but we don’t.”
In the months leading up to the trial, Manafort’s attorneys have worked hard to limit the political dimension of the case. Earlier this month, the defense filed a motion to preclude evidence related to Manafort’s consulting work in Ukraine, and on Thursday filed a motion requesting the exclusion of 50 exhibits — more than 470 pages of documents — from the government’s case.
Prosecutors, however, argued that “the Trump campaign is relevant and inextricably intertwined” with one of the bank fraud and conspiracy charges brought against Manafort.
According to the filing, Manafort fraudulently obtained two loans totaling $16 million from a financial institution. The loan applications were approved by a senior executive who sought Manafort’s help in securing a position advising the Trump campaign — and unsuccessfully attempted to get a position in the administration.
The executive involved has not been named in court filings, but has been widely reported to be Stephen M. Calk, chief executive of Chicago’s Federal Savings Bank. The bank has said it won’t comment during the course of the trial.
Legal experts and attorneys say Ellis will focus the trial on the charges presented, not any broad political overtones.
“He’s one of the best judges I tried a case before, if not the best,” said Andrew McBride, a lawyer who served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia in the 1990s and who tried at least seven cases before Ellis. “He’s very straight and down-the-line, and he knows the rules of evidence cold.”
Ellis has indicated that he will move the case along, in keeping with the Eastern District’s reputation as the “rocket docket.” The court’s judges pride themselves on speedily resolving cases; Manafort’s is expected to last about three weeks.
During jury questioning, Ellis will be looking for jurors who have an open mind about the case, which could be a challenge with a case that has already received so much national attention.
“You don’t want someone who’s already formed an opinion,” Najdowski said. “On the other hand, who hasn’t heard about it, and what rock have they been living under?”
Last week, 73 potential jurors arrived in court to fill out a jury questionnaire. According to court documents, the court indicated that 30 of the 73 potential jurors would be excused on the basis of their answers, either due to preexisting obligations or a demonstrated inability to judge the case fairly.
Virginia’s Eastern District has a jury pool that includes a high number of government employees and contractors, said Chris Leibig, a criminal defense attorney based in Alexandria. He added that the jury pool is generally “very well-educated and up on current events.”
Jurors’ political views, however, do not necessarily prevent them from dealing fairly with a criminal case, experts said.
“We all have lots of stuff we bring with us to the courtroom — gender, race, religion, sexual orientation — and sometimes these things make a difference in our politics, but not in terms of how we evaluate the facts,” Butler said.
Lawyers will pore over the questionnaires, run internet searches and comb through social media to create a profile of each juror, attempting to determine if an individual would be an asset or detriment to their side of the case.
With that work largely done in advance, jury questioning, which will be done solely by the judge, is not expected to take more than a day.
“In the Eastern District of Virginia, if the jury selection starts at 9 a.m., they’ll have a jury in the box by 2 p.m.,” McBride said.
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