Back in May, T.S. Ellis, the veteran federal judge who is overseeing Paul Manafort’s first trial in Virginia, whipped the Fox News set into a frenzy when he seemed to berate prosecutors working for special counsel Robert Mueller. “Federal judge accuses Mueller’s team of lying” was the headline Donald Trump’s favorite network went with, and his allies and even the president ran with it, as though finally a member of the judiciary had the temerity to stand up to the rigged witch hunt.
There was one problem: There was no such accusation from Ellis. And the judge — who at best was playing hardball with the lawyers before him, as magistrates are wont to do — ruled for Mueller in the end, rejecting a pretrial challenge to the legality and propriety of the charges against Manafort, and the special counsel’s mandate itself. Fox News ended up appending a correction to its breathless report, owning up to erroneously putting words in Ellis’ mouth.
Now that the federal trial for Trump’s former campaign chairman is well underway, lots of breathless, sensational headlines and tidbits are bound to emerge from Ellis’s Alexandria courtroom in the coming days and weeks. And they have already: Tales of questionable offshore wire transfers and lavish spending on luxury menswear, ostrich-leather jackets, and high-end real estate and vehicles are already dominating print and cable-news reports, with little emphasis given to how Manafort’s charges relate, if at all, to the broader Russia investigation. Or why this first trial, a bellwether of sorts for other Mueller trials to come, matters at all.
Because the Virginia indictment is largely about tax and bank fraud stemming from Manafort’s pre-2016 lobbying work for a Russia-friendly politician in Ukraine, Ellis has rightfully sought to limit any attempts to get jurors to draw improper inferences about presidential politics, the sitting president, or even the existence of a special counsel. Zoe Tillman of BuzzFeed News reported Wednesday that even the word “oligarch,” in connection with well-to-do Ukrainians, would not be allowed in Ellis’s courtroom — a sign that the judge wants jurors to remain focused on the charges and the charges alone. He may also want to impress on their minds that association with sleazy, wealthy foreign figures does not a federal fraudster make.
“That’s not the American way,” Ellis warned prosecutors as they fought to introduce a truckload of evidence about Manafort’s profligate spending habits, which in their view reinforced their theory that he had something to hide from federal tax authorities.
Nothing about this is any different from any other high-profile trial we’ve seen. Properly instructed and shielded from unduly prejudicial evidence, jurors in the Manafort trial will then, as they should, be expected to determine if the facts — the story Mueller’s attorneys are trying to tell about their target’s dealings — support a conviction under federal law for the indicted conduct. If you read an account of how Ellis is holding the government’s feet to the fire, that’s his job as a judge. That’s the American, constitutional way to handle a trial, and we’re all the better for it.
That doesn’t mean Mueller’s team is on the ropes, not in the least bit. Nor are we obligated to follow every waking moment of the trial, which Ellis seems to want to wrap up quickly. Just as the judge doesn’t want prosecutors to lose focus or go on irrelevant tangents, the same is true for the rest of us. Don’t get distracted by the shiny objects and fashion bills. Instead, focus on the most remarkable aspect of the Manafort trial thus far: the reaction from President Trump, as well as what will come next.
Ponder for a moment that the president of the United States, on the day prosecutors representing the United States were in court making their case against Manafort, ordered the country’s top prosecutor, Jeff Sessions, to shut the whole thing down. Or that Trump went to bat for his disgraced former campaign chief, likening Manafort favorably to mob boss Al Capone and suggesting that the prosecution his own government brought against Manafort is malicious and rotten to the core. If that’s not improper interference with an ongoing law enforcement and judicial matter, I don’t know what is.
There’s undoubtedly something at the heart of Paul Manafort’s legal troubles that unsettles the president. As if there’s something the two of them know that could implicate the bigger fish in high crimes or malfeasance of some kind. Manafort did a lot for his client, the unlikely presidential candidate, than most people like to give him credit for. Could Manafort, who lived well beyond his means and yet worked for the campaign for no money, be sticking to his guns and bleeding money defending himself because he expects Trump to reciprocate? And maybe, with the stroke of a pen, absolve him like he did Joe Arpaio?
To understand how far Manafort is willing to go for Trump, look at the far more interesting court activity happening across the Potomac. In Washington, D.C., Manafort stands accused of conspiring to defraud the U.S. government, of failure to register as a foreign lobbyist, and of obstruction of justice, among other charges — and that alongside a mysterious co-defendant, Konstantin Kilimnik. Earlier this year, Mueller disclosed in court documents that this wingman possessed “ties to Russian intelligence service,” which persisted during the presidential campaign. That case is still on schedule to go to trial in September, despite Manafort’s best efforts to delay it.
But there’s more. Just as jury selection was underway in Alexandria on Tuesday, the chief judge of the federal courthouse in Washington issued a 92-page ruling ordering an aide for Roger Stone, the irreverent Trump confidant and longtime Manafort pal, to testify before a grand jury. The decision was categorical, the third affirming the authority and legality of the special counsel investigation. But this one came with a bit of extra oomph. U.S. Chief Judge Beryl Howell, its author, may also be overseeing the secret grand-jury proceedings unfolding in the nation’s capital — a task that would place her at the center of nearly every pre-prosecution aspect of every public case so far initiated by the special counsel. More than anyone, she’d know that the Mueller probe is no hoax.
“The scope of the Special Counsel’s power falls well within the boundaries the Constitution permits, as the Special Counsel is supervised by an official who is himself accountable to the elected President,” wrote Howell. She also gave Mueller a boost last year in a similar, pre-indictment dispute with a Manafort lawyer who was wanted for testimony before the grand jury.
This is all tough news for Manafort. For months now, he has mounted similar Hail Marys attempting to delegitimize the Mueller probe. Both Ellis and U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson have rejected separate motions to dismiss the two active cases against him. So far, all Manafort’s efforts have been for naught, as has his bid to stand trial at liberty rather than behind bars. On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit affirmed Jackson’s order to revoke Manafort’s home detention over allegations that he was tampering with witnesses — a new crime that, if proved, would only add to his legal woes. So there’s little doubt he’ll sit in jail through the duration of both trials.
We’re not done. Jackson this week sided with a special counsel request to not allow Manafort’s lawyers to game the clock on the Washington trial involving Kilimnik, which for months has been set for September. All along, Mueller’s team has been doing its due diligence — turning over certain pretrial materials to the defense in good faith, hoping the other side will do the same as the two adversaries prepare their cases-in-chief. But Manafort’s side hasn’t turned over anything. “The defense has made no showing whatsoever for its requested four-week extension, and to grant it would unfairly prejudice the government,” Mueller’s lawyers charged in a court filing that accused Manafort’s legal team of “gamesmanship.” Jackson ruled later that same day that she’s “opposed” to any attempts to delay the Washington trial.
That’s where the real action will be, and where talk of election interference and Russian conspiracy may be inevitable. With Manafort hanging on by the skin of his teeth, and Mueller refusing to make it any easier for him, patience through all these trials and tribulations may just be the price he has to pay as he hopes that maybe, just maybe, President Trump will throw him a lifeline.