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Prosecution's case in Paul Manafort trial close to wrapping up

Over nine days in federal court, prosecutors in Paul Manafort's trial appeared to operate with an overarchin...

Posted: Aug 13, 2018 6:51 AM
Updated: Aug 13, 2018 6:51 AM

Over nine days in federal court, prosecutors in Paul Manafort's trial appeared to operate with an overarching goal: Connect the dots between the criminal charges against the former Trump campaign chairman.

"A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him," said prosecutor Uzo Asonye in the very first words of prosecutors' presentation to the jury. Each day has layered witness after witness -- 26 total so far -- toward that point.

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On the different days of testimony, the topics varied. The trial kicked off with descriptions of his political work in Ukraine. There were several hours of house and garden specialists and luxury goods salespeople detailing Manafort's purchases, days spent explaining his foreign accounts and his tax laws, and others discussing his bank application for loans.

But if special counsel Robert Mueller's team is to be successful in convincing a jury of Northern Virginians to convict Manafort, they had to paint a picture that placed the 18 charges into one gripping narrative: that of a man who got rich, went to extra lengths to hide that wealth from the IRS, pushed fake documents to banks to keep up the cash flow, leveraged his role as Donald Trump's campaign chairman for a final $16 million, and did whatever he could to enjoy fortune and power.

If the prosecutors succeed in winning a unanimous conviction, it could have wide-ranging implications for the Trump administration and President Donald Trump himself. The outcome of the case could have major implications for the public's perception of Mueller's ongoing probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election — which has taken a hit in recent months amid repeated attacks from Trump and his allies and appears to still be relying upon help from Manafort's right-hand man, another top Trump campaign official, Rick Gates.

In turn, the courtroom result is likely to affect how Trump's team reacts to Mueller.

A conviction of Manafort is still far from assured, of course. The defense still has a chance to raise doubts in the prosecution's case next week. And the prosecution's star witness, Gates, has plenty of baggage of his own that he admitted during the trial, from cheating on his wife to embezzling money from Manafort himself.

But the voluminous documents, testimony corroborated witness by witness, and Manafort's own emails suggest Gates' criminal and moral confessions alone won't be enough for Manafort's legal team to overcome the charges.

"In some sense, Manafort has already testified through the admission of his emails," said Michael Zeldin, a former assistant to Mueller and a CNN legal analyst. "As a prosecutor, you can say Gates was credible. He's not a saint, he's an admitted sinner, he's going to go to jail for his sins, but what he told you today is true. We know it's true because of all the other witnesses who we'll go through the testimony of, and all the documentary evidence which we'll go through, including emails from Mr. Manafort, that corroborate his testimony."

"Even if you don't like Gates, there's nothing about his testimony that is unbelievable, and it supports a jury verdict of guilt," Zeldin added.

Manafort is charged with 18 banking and tax crimes and faces a maximum of 305 years in prison if convicted. He has been held in jail since June 15 after prosecutors and a grand jury alleged he tried to tamper with witnesses. Throughout the trial, he has appeared to remain in good spirits, wearing blue and black suits without socks or a belt. He's followed the evidence presented closely, taking notes with his glasses on and whispering to his lawyers to discuss the action. Occasionally he'll turn to wink at his wife Kathleen, who, dressed in black and accompanied by two close female friends, has sat in the front spectator row behind her husband every day.

One looming question that developed Friday and could still throw an unexpected curveball: Why was the trial delayed for nearly five hours after a meeting between the judge, prosecution and defense team?

The delay is not yet explained, and the secretive conversations Friday are under seal by the court. The prosecution is slated to wrap up — assuming no other delays occur — on Monday afternoon.

Gates on the stand

The most dramatic days of the trial had Gates on the witness stand Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday last week. That included intense cross-examination from Manafort's attorneys.

Gates was initially indicted along with Manafort last October for alleged foreign lobbying crimes. He also faced several joint charges with Manafort when a grand jury approved the Virginia case. But Gates agreed to plead guilty in February to conspiracy in Manafort's tax and foreign lobbying scheme and lying to investigators. He also agreed to cooperate with Mueller's team, including testifying against his former boss. The special counsel's office dropped the charges against him in Virginia.

In his first public appearance since his February plea hearing, Gates answered nearly eight hours of questions from the attorneys quickly and with a frown on his face. Yet his eyes avoided Manafort's and he never reacted strongly to defense attorney Kevin Downing goading him about his misdeeds -- including embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Manafort.

After describing exactly how the pair set up and used secret Cypriot bank accounts to move Manafort's money around, Gates read an email Manafort sent him directing a wire transfer. "There were hundreds of these," he testified. Gates didn't submit required forms about the accounts "at Mr. Manafort's direction," he said, choosing, as he did for three days in the courtroom, not to call his close associate by the familiar "Paul."

Later, when asked about his work with the special counsel's office on his preparation for the trial, "The only answer I was told was to tell the truth," Gates said.

A cantankerous judge

Federal Judge T.S. Ellis has loomed over the trial as a cantankerous ringleader of the Manafort circus, and his frequent interruptions and challenges to Mueller's team have added an extra layer of complication for the prosecution team.

Twice the prosecutors have asked the judge to correct statements he made in front of the jury, including reprimanding a prosecutor for their approach to a witness and telling an attorney not to spend time questioning another witness about one of the alleged banking crimes.

The judge has stopped Mueller's team on numerous occasions, including five sentences into prosecutor Uzo Asonye's 30-minute opening speech to the jury. "The evidence, you contend, will show this?" Ellis interrupted. "Well, that's the way I would put it, Mr. Asonye."

The judge has also refused to allow prosecutors to show several photos and other evidence on screens in the courtroom, including pictures of luxury items Manafort purchased, such as a $15,000 ostrich jacket.

At times, the prosecutors have become so frustrated with the judge's remarks and decisions, they've nearly lost their cool. On one afternoon, Ellis accused prosecutor Greg Andres of having tears in his eyes when Andres wouldn't look at the judge directly while they argued privately about Gates' testimony. On another day, Andres replied "Yeah," to a question from the judge, until Ellis prompted him several times to say "yes, judge."

The reprimands reached a boiling point Tuesday when Ellis scolded prosecutors for allowing an expert witness from the IRS to sit in the courtroom during the preceding proceedings. The prosecutors and the judge had specifically discussed allowing the expert to do so -- fact witnesses typically aren't allowed to watch proceedings -- but Ellis scolded prosecutors for it anyway. He told the jury the next day he was "probably wrong" in the incident.

Ellis has not yet addressed what prosecutors have pointed out may be an even more damaging comment to the jury. As a witness testified about Manafort's alleged fraud conspiracy to get a $5.5 million loan from Citizens Bank, Ellis said the questioners should "spend time on a loan that was granted." On Friday morning, prosecutors argued that that comment could "confuse and mislead the jury" or even prejudice them because the conspiracy charge for the unfulfilled $5.5 million is among the criminal counts Manafort faces.

The fracas signals that prosecutors have some concerns that the judge's tactics could affect the jury's deliberation of the complicated case.

Putting the pieces together

Although Gates' time on the stand was a memorable point, perhaps the moments spectators will remember the most came in quieter, more methodical questioning from prosecutors. A bookkeeper and an accountant who testified in the early days of the trial provided perhaps the most complete and damning testimony supporting the allegations that Manafort committed the crimes.

First was Heather Washkuhn, a bookkeeper for Manafort personally and for his business. She spent hours setting up each point the prosecutors made with almost every witness to follow. Yes, those financial statements Gates and Manafort sent to banks weren't from her, they were counterfeit, she said. No, she never knew about the millions of dollars in income he was getting from the Ukrainians or the dozens of foreign bank accounts he kept it in.

Following Washkuhn, accountant Cindy Laporta and an accounting colleague, Philip Ayliff, both asserted Manafort and Gates never told them to tell the IRS about any foreign accounts. Then Laporta confessed to Manafort's bank fraud, with documents displayed on the screens in the courtroom. She had written a letter to support a back-dated sham loan forgiveness statement that Manafort used to show a bank he had cash. Laporta's letter and the falsified loan statement helped Manafort secure several million dollars at a time he made next to nothing from his lobbying operation.

"I very much regret it," she told the court. Manafort was a longtime customer of her accounting firm, so she went along when he and Gates asked, she said.

Late in the trial, another apparent smoking gun emerged, from the offices of the New York Yankees. It was an email Manafort sent in 2011, with him alone telling the Yankees he'd pay for his $227,000 Legends Suite seats out of his foreign bank account. "Perfect," Manafort said in another email with the Yankees. Gates wasn't enjoying the seats -- it was always Manafort and his wife Kathleen.

The trial resumes Monday afternoon with a final witness for the prosecution, a bank executive who saw his bank loan millions to Manafort after the bank's founder sought perks from the Trump campaign and administration.

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