Prosecutors cite evidence of opulent lifestyle in case the president said has 'nothing to do with Collusion'
Manafort's lavish spending in spotlight as Trump throws shade on trial
There was no sign of the $15,000 ostrich suit or the $21,000 designer watch on Wednesday as Paul Manafort, US President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, arrived for the second day of his trial on charges of tax evasion and bank fraud.
Yet his lavish lifestyle and impressive spending is already emerging as a key theme of the closely watched prosecution unfolding in United States District Court in Alexandria, just outside Washington DC.
Mr Manafort’s trial is the first stemming from charges brought by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the very probe that Mr Trump called for an end to on Wednesday.
He distanced himself from the defendant and demanded that Attorney General Jeff Sessions conclude the investigation with the sort of tweet that appeared designed to throw shade on the Virginia court room.
The Republican president wrote on Twitter: "This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!"
Russia has denied interfering in the election and Mr Trump denies any involvement by his campaign.
The early exchanges of the trial set the tone of what to expect: A defence intent on shifting blame to Mr Manafort’s assistant (who has already pleaded guilty and struck a deal with the government), a judge impatient to blitzkrieg through the complex evidence in three weeks, and not a mention of the defendant’s role in the Trump campaign, despite the intense media gaze.
Even so, the prospect of two senior figures in Mr Trump’s election fighting over who concealed what from whom during their work for pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine offers tantalising sport for the Washington elite during the capital’s slow, steamy summer weeks.
Mr Manafort faces 18 charges stemming from consultancy work that predated the Trump campaign. Prosecutors allege that he did not pay taxes on a huge chunk of the $60 million he earned working in Ukraine, hid the income in a web of 30 overseas bank accounts, and lied to American banks so that he could borrow cash once the money from Ukraine dried up.
Uzo Asonye, a member of Mr Mueller’s team, cited a suit made from ostrich, the watch and hundreds of thousands of dollars in “fancy clothes” as evidence of an opulent lifestyle
“He got whatever he wanted,” he said. “His homes, his renovations, his jewellery, his clothing.”
The web of transactions is complicated. And juries can be slow to convict on white collar crimes.
But the prosecution’s witness list offers a glimpse inside their strategy for the days ahead. They plan to call about 35 people, from a Mercedes Benz salesman to a ticket seller for the New York Yankees as they paint a portrait of Manafort’s life – the two silk rugs worth $160,000, the six homes and more than million dollars in clothing.
So even as jurors grapple with what are expected to be head-crunching details of international finance – such as the bank accounts in Cyprus, the UK and St Vincent – they will be invited to deny Mr Manfort any benefit of the doubt.
As Jonathan Turley, Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, put it in The Hill magazine: “This type of evidence invites class resentment and an unconscious desire to see an elitist fall.”
The tactics did not escape the judge’s eagle eye. TS Ellis III, who has a reputation for speaking his mind and who made clear his intention to wrap things up in three weeks, interrupted Mr Asonye several times in the first few minutes.
“It isn’t a crime to be profligate in your spending,” he said.
Progress will be monitored closely by all sides in America’s polarised political world. A conviction would almost certainly lend momentum to Mr Mueller’s investigation, which has already indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies. Acquittal would embolden Mr Trump and his supporters in dismissing his probe as a “witch hunt”.
Mr Manafort’s lawyers, in their opening statement, attempted to shift blame for any wrongdoing.
Thomas Zehnle said his client was a successful political consultant of 40 years whose mistake was to leave Mr Gates, his former associate, to run the day-to-day operations of his company.
“Rick Gates had his hand in the cookie jar,” said Mr Zehnle.
Mr Gates has known Manafort since the start of his career when he started out as an intern at Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly – one of Washington’s most influential Republican lobbying firms. Although Manafort left soon after Mr Gates joined, they renewed their acquaintance in 2006 at a new firm.
That firm helped rebrand Ukraine’s Putin-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, as a reformist candidate open to forging closer links to the European Union.
When Mr Manafort was recruited to the Trump campaign in 2016, Mr Gates came too. And when Mr Manafort was charged by prosecutors last year, Mr Gates was charged too.
Their paths diverged in February, however, when Manafort’s long-time lieutenant struck a plea deal with the government. He admitted lying to the FBI and “conspiracy against the USA”, and agreed to co-operate with Mr Mueller’s investigators.
That leaves him now as the prosecution’s star witness in a case that is poised to shine a light on the inner workings of Washington lobbyists and a presidential campaign, even if the events of the 2016 election are not its target.