Manafort’s Trial Starts Tuesday. Here Are the Charges and the Stakes.
Posted July 29, 2018 11:43 a.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Paul Manafort, the veteran Republican political operative and lobbyist who helped run President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, is scheduled to go to trial on financial fraud charges starting Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia.
The main points to be aware of:
— It is the first trial stemming from charges brought by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the campaign.
— Prosecutors have said they do not intend to delve into questions about collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in this case, which focuses on how Manafort handled the money he earned working as a consultant in Ukraine.
— The trial is expected to last at least three weeks, and a second trial is scheduled to follow starting in September. In that case, Manafort will face related charges in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
The following are some of the most frequently asked questions about the trial.
Q: What are the charges?
A: The 32-count indictment charged Manafort with disguising more than $30 million in overseas income by moving it through offshore accounts, lying to banks and evading taxes.
Prosecutors claim that beginning in 2006, Manafort hid millions of dollars in income that he received from the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian oligarchs to promote a pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych. When Yanukovych fled to Russia after a popular uprising in 2014, prosecutors say, the spigot of funds from Ukraine dried up. They charge that Manafort then resorted to bank fraud to maintain his lifestyle.
According to the indictment, he was helped by his right hand man, Rick Gates, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and lying to the FBI. Gates, who also worked for the Trump campaign, is expected to testify against Manafort.
The most serious charges against Manafort could carry sentences of up to 30 years each. He also faces charges of money laundering, violating a federal lobbying disclosure law and obstruction of justice.
Q: How does the case fit into the Mueller inquiry?
A: Manafort’s supporters claim that it does not, and his legal team at one point sought to have the case thrown out on the basis that Mueller had exceeded his authority. The judge in the Virginia case, T.S. Ellis III, suggested in court that the prosecutors were simply pursuing the case as a way of pressuring Manafort to provide evidence that could implicate Trump.
Ellis put it this way to prosecutors in a preliminary hearing: “You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud. You really care about what information Mr. Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment or whatever.”
But the judge ultimately decided that Mueller’s team had “followed the money paid by pro-Russian officials” to Manafort — a line of inquiry that fell squarely in his authority.
If Manafort is convicted, it will be harder for Trump and his supporters to claim the special counsel is waging a “witch hunt.” If he is acquitted, it would likely elicit more calls from Trump’s supporters for Mueller to wind up his work.
Q: What’s at stake for Trump?
A: The charges against Manafort do not involve any allegations that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians to tip the 2016 election. Nonetheless, the question of what, if anything, Manafort might know about that looms over the trial.
Should Manafort decide to cooperate with prosecutors, Mueller’s team will probably have a wide range of questions related to his role in the Trump presidential campaign, including what he knows about the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 organized by Russian emissaries who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.
On the other hand, Gates, Manafort’s close associate, has been cooperating with Mueller’s team for months. So even if he has information of interest to Mueller and decides to make a deal, Manafort might not lead investigators into brand-new territory.
Q: What has Trump said about it?
A: The president has simultaneously stood up for Manafort and tried to distance himself from him. “Wow, what a tough sentence for Paul Manafort, who has represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other top political people and campaigns,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post on the day the judge in Washington revoked his bail.
But the president also said: “He worked for me, what, for 49 days or something?” he added. “I feel badly for some people because they have gone back 12 years to find things.”
In fact, Manafort worked for the Trump campaign for a lot longer than 49 days. He spent five months with the campaign in 2016. He was hired to manage delegates to the Republican National Convention but moved up to campaign chairman after two months. Gates continued to serve as the campaign’s deputy chairman after Manafort was forced out in August 2016 amid allegations related to his Ukrainian work.
Q: How could the trial play out?
A: To prove that Manafort defrauded banks, prosecutors need to show he deliberately lied about financial facts, said Nancy Gertner, a former U.S. district judge and a professor at Harvard Law School.
The prosecutors have provided the outline of their case in the indictment and various filings. Prosecutors intend to show that beginning in 2006, Manafort used offshore accounts and corporate entities to illegally disguise income that he used to maintain a lavish lifestyle.
In 2012 alone, they have said, Manafort paid $3 million in cash for a Brooklyn brownstone and nearly $3 million for a Manhattan condominium and he bought a house in Arlington, Virginia. He also shelled out millions for antique rugs, clothing and home improvements including a waterfall pond and personal putting green, the prosecutors claim. All told, $75 million flowed through offshore accounts that he tapped, they say.
“They are going to show evidence that Mr. Manafort spent enormous amounts of money that are beyond the sensibility of most people, including me,” said Ross S. Delston, a Washington lawyer and expert witness on money-laundering cases.
Manafort’s defense team has not revealed its strategy.
Q: Why is Manafort in jail?
A: The federal judge who will try the charges filed in Washington, Amy Berman Jackson, revoked Manafort’s bond and ordered him to jail in mid-June after prosecutors filed new charges saying that after his indictment, Manafort sought to influence the testimony of two witnesses.
They said that Manafort and an associate had suggested to the witnesses that he had not violated federal law requiring lobbyists representing foreign interests disclose their activities to the Justice Department.
Q: Why are there two trials?
A: Prosecutors filed the tax and bank fraud charges in Virginia, where Manafort has a home, because that’s where they say those crimes occurred. The other charges, including money laundering, were lodged in Washington for the same reason.
Manafort’s lawyers could have agreed to consolidate the cases. Instead, they opted to hold the first trial in northern Virginia, where the jury pool is likely to be more conservative politically than in heavily Democratic Washington and perhaps more sympathetic to him.