After being delayed by six days, Paul Manafort’s trial got off to a swift start in Alexandria, Virginia on Tuesday. Jury selection was completed just before 2 p.m., leaving time for both sides to offer their opening statements, and prosecutors to call their first witness.
Though this is the first trial stemming from Robert Mueller’s investigation (the second will come in September, when Manafort is tried for more explosive crimes in D.C.) no one mentioned the special counsel, Russia, or President Trump. Instead, jurors were presented with two portraits of Manafort: Prosecutors described him as a habitual liar who willfully avoided paying taxes to fund his lavish lifestyle, while the defense painted him as a gifted political strategist duped by his devious deputy, Rick Gates. There were also guest appearances from Bernie Sanders’s former chief strategist and a $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich. Here are all the new revelations.
The jury consists of six men and six women, with three men and one woman serving as alternates.
The jurors were selected from a pool of about 60 jurors from Northern Virginia. When Judge T.S. Ellis III asked if anyone had a connection to the Justice Department, nine people raised their hands. “Oh, my goodness,” he joked. “I’m not going to ask that question again.”
Judge Ellis repeatedly reminded jurors not to discuss the case with anyone, or do any outside research. He said he hoped they “will not hurry to slit your wrists,” joking, “There is a positive side to this. The court will supply your lunch every day.”
As the trial got underway, Manafort tried to make eye contact with the jury. The Washington Post reports, “He smiled wanly. The jurors did not smile back.”
Prosecutors: Manafort “believed the law did not apply to him”
Manafort stands accused of hiding millions of dollars he earned from political consulting in Ukraine from 2008 to 2014, then engaging in bank fraud to keep himself afloat when those funds dried up. It seems the central question of the trial, which is expected to last three weeks, is whether these financial schemes were directed by Manafort or Gates. Manafort’s longtime business partner, who also worked under him on the Trump campaign, was charged with similar crimes, but took a plea deal and is now the Mueller team’s star witness.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye started the prosecution’s opening statement with a bang. “A man in the courtroom believed the law did not apply to him, not the tax laws, not the banking laws,” Asonye said. “That man is the defendant, Paul Manafort … Paul Manafort placed himself and his money over the law.”
But Judge Ellis interrupted Asonye twice in the first minute of his presentation, first warning him to stick with what the evidence would show rather than making broad assertions, and then cutting off his description of Manafort’s lavish purchases. “It isn’t a crime to be profligate in your spending,” Ellis said.
Asonye quickly recovered, describing Manafort as someone who regularly lied about his business and income, and who directed staffers to file false tax returns to deceive the U.S. government. He said former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was Manafort’s “golden goose” and that Manafort was “paid handsomely” by the oligarchs funding the campaign, who transferred money to Manafort’s 30-plus foreign bank accounts.
“The evidence will show that [Manafort] didn’t want to pay income tax on all of that income … So, he didn’t,” Asonye said. “Paul Manafort did not just forget about one account with a few thousand dollars in it. He had millions in those accounts every single year.”
Asonye listed evidence of the extravagant lifestyle Manafort was trying to maintain: seven homes paid for in cash, a Mercedes-Benz convertible, several $5 million rugs, a $21,000 watch, and a $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich. “He got whatever he wanted,” Asonye said. “His homes, his renovations, his jewelry, his clothing.”
Defense: Manafort was duped by his deputy
While jurors seemed engaged during Asonye’s 26-minute opening statement, according to the Post, they appeared “visibly deflated” during defense attorney Thomas Zehnle’s opening statement, and several who had been jotting down notes stopped writing.
Zehnle described Gates as a busy political consultant who essentially “failed to check a box” on government forms, and whose biggest mistake was putting his “trust in the wrong person,” Rick Gates. He said Gates’s job was to coordinate with Manafort’s bookkeepers and tax preparers, and for the first time accused his client’s deputy of stealing money from him.
“He embezzled millions of dollars from his longtime employer. He abused his position of trust,” Zehnle said. “Rick Gates hid his hand in the cookie jar and he could not take the chance his gig would be found out.”
Zehnle said Gates only flipped to save himself from prosecution, and noted that he’d pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in financial fraud and lying to authorities, yet “the government is going to ask you to trust him.”
In an effort to counter the prosecution’s portrait of Manafort as a man who routinely deceived his country to continue enjoying bizarre luxury goods, Zehnle emphasized that Manafort is “a second-generation immigrant, first in his family to go to college,” and claimed the focus of his work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine “was to bring the country closer to Western democracy.”
And sure, items like ostrich jackets sound weird to the average American, but Zehnle said that’s the world Manafort lived in.
“Paul Manafort travels in circles that most people would never know,” he said. “He lived a lifestyle that most people can only dream of.”
The first witness: Bernie’s former strategist
Following opening statements, the prosecution called its first witness: Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who was Bernie Sanders’s chief strategist during the 2016 campaign. Devine worked with Manafort on Yanukovych’s campaign, and said he was impressed by the professional operation he set up.
However, Devine undermined several claims made by the defense. While Manafort’s attorneys said he was only paid via bank accounts in Cyprus because that’s how his Ukrainian clients wanted it, Devine said he did not have any accounts in the country. He also said that while Manafort and Gates were technically business partners, its was clear who the boss was.
“Paul was in charge,” Devine said. “Rick worked for Paul.”
Prosecutors did not bring up the Sanders connection, but the defense noted that he has worked for the senator and other top Democrats including Al Gore and John Kerry. Prosecutors objected to this apparent attempt to suggest Devine is biased, as the judge ordered that political references be kept out of the trial. But Devine agreed when a defense attorney said he isn’t often on Manafort’s side politically, replying, “That’s fair to say.”
Devine would not comment on the case outside the courtroom, saying only, “Paul deserves a fair trial.”