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WH attempts to downplay Manafort's role in the Trump campaign

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Posted: Aug. 1, 2018 8:33 AM
Updated: Aug. 1, 2018 8:47 AM

Paul Manafort's criminal trial kicked off with a furious start Tuesday as the federal courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, found a jury, heard opening statements and saw the first witness testify.

President Donald Trump was also following the developments of Manafort, his former campaign chairman, from Air Force One, and had his legal team giving him updates.

This is the first criminal trial brought by the team of special counsel Robert Mueller.

Here are five takeaways:

Flipping Is Off the Menu?

This trial is really happening. After months of speculation of whether Manafort would "flip" on his campaign associates and Trump, Manafort never reached a deal with prosecutors.

Mueller's team plans to rely on a boatload of documents, emails and witnesses to paint Manafort as a serial liar who deceived the federal government, his own accountants and banks and orchestrated his business associates into setting up a criminal financial enterprise.

Prosecutor Uzo Asonye started the first words of the trial with this line: "A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him."

There were rumblings of a deal Monday night, after defense lawyers and the Justice Department jointly agreed to drop Manafort's appeal of the loss in his civil lawsuit challenging Mueller's authority. Yet no plea materialized in court Tuesday.

RELATED: Paul Manafort trial tracker

He could always change his mind, plead guilty and agree to cooperate with Mueller's investigation into Russian collusion at any time before a jury returns a verdict.

But why wouldn't Manafort roll the dice on the jury and hope for the President's sympathies now?

Trump has offered pardons to several others, especially to those convicted of public corruption crimes, and tweeted his support of Manafort. "Wow, what a tough sentence for Paul Manafort, who has represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other top political people and campaigns," tweeted the President, who would be the sole person with power to pardon Manafort if he's convicted in this case. "Very unfair!"

All About Gates

Manafort's relationship with his right-hand man, Rick Gates, appears to be over.

Defense attorney Thomas Zehnle focused more than half of his opening statement on Gates, calling him the prosecution's "star witness" and, conversely, calling him an embezzler. He described how his team would show how Gates "did it" -- that is, handled much of Manafort's business dealings that the government says were criminal, while also swindling Manafort.

Gates pleaded guilty to two criminal charges in DC federal court related to his dealings with Manafort in February -- effectively flipping on Manafort -- and prosecutors dropped the part of the case against him in Virginia. One of those crimes was lying to investigators, Zehnle pointed out in an early attack on his trustworthiness.

If Manafort successfully cuts into his longtime deputy's credibility, that could spell problems for the entire Mueller investigation. Gates has agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department for as long as it sees fit, and prosecutors told him long ago they sought his help in their core mission of investigating Russian interference in the presidential election, according to CNN reporting. (The allegations at issue in Manafort's case barely touch his and Gates' work on the Trump campaign.)

A Whiff of Russia

Democratic political consultant Tad Devine's appearance as the first witness may signal that the jurors will be schooled on Ukrainian politics.

Devine worked with Manafort and his team of associates on political campaigns in the region for years. And for almost an hour, prosecutor Greg Andres walked Devine through his knowledge of several Manafort contacts and business strategies in the Eastern European country, including his contact with oligarch and Party of Regions backer Rinat Akhmetov.

The former Ukrainian president for whom Manafort did the most work, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia after losing power in 2014 and is now considered to be closely aligned with President Vladimir Putin.

Devine also discussed how Manafort and Gates in 2014 sought unsuccessfully to pivot toward helping a budding opposition party and working for the current Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

Manafort's jury of peers

Six men and six women will decide Manafort's guilt. The 69-year-old faces a maximum sentence of more than 300 years in prison if these Northern Virginians side against him.

When the courtroom filled with jurors Tuesday morning, they looked much like Manafort -- largely middle-aged, white. Two potential jurors said they were "recovering attorneys," while four said they were former or current federal government employees.

However, none of those individuals made the jury.

Not much is known about the 12 individuals and four alternates. These people in the courtroom will be known only by their juror numbers and their observable appearances during the trial: Juror 145, Juror 299, Juror 276, etc. Almost three-quarters of the jury is white. At least four jurors are younger than Manafort.

What's left are a few people who closed their eyes during the hours of proceedings Tuesday. Several who put on glasses for the start of opening statements. And one man who looked unhappy to be chosen then took close notes.

Lightning Speed

Before heading into Tuesday, court-watchers expected a slow start to the trial, with the jury selection process to last up to two days and for opening statements to start on the third day. Judge T.S. Ellis had other ideas. The pace so far has repositioned the trial from one that could bore jurors and get bogged down in financial technicalities to one that's whipping by.

Ellis set a tight schedule for opening arguments Tuesday: 30 minutes or less. Asonye and defense lawyer Thomas Zehnle kept each of their summations of the case to about that time.

And then following a short break, prosecutor Greg Andres began to question Devine. Andres pelted questions at a quick clip and showed more than a dozen documents to the jury as evidence of Devine and Manafort's Ukrainian work. At about a half hour into Andres' questioning of Devine, Ellis cut in. How much more with this witness, he asked. "Move it along," Ellis said.

Day two begins Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.

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