Paul Manafort Trial Resumes With Testimony From FBI Agent Who Raided Former Campaign Manager’s Home
Day two of the Paul Manafort trial resumed Wednesday with testimony from an FBI agent who raided Manafort’s home — as well as President Donald Trump’s repeated Twitter attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, which at one point included a comparison between Manafort and Al Capone.
Prosecutors also raised the prospect that Manafort’s longtime deputy, Rick Gates, would not be called as a witness after the defense team indicated in its opening statement Tuesday that Manafort’s lawyers planned to make Gates’ role a key element of the defense.
Should Gates not testify as a witness for the prosecution, it would complicate the ability for Manafort’s team to make their case against Gates, and might prompt them to call him as a defense witness instead.
As Mueller’s team made its case against Trump’s former campaign chairman in the courtroom, the President took to Twitter to call the prosecution a “hoax” and claim that Manafort worked for the campaign “for a very short time.”
Manafort’s trial is the first case Mueller’s team has taken before a jury, where they are charging Manafort with 18 counts of violating tax and banking laws. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The trial began Tuesday with prosecutors accusing Manafort of violating the law in order to fund an extravagant lifestyle, including purchases of real estate, cars, a $21,000 watch and a $15,000 jacket “made from an ostrich.” Prosecutors’ plan to paint Manafort as a lavish spender, however, was complicated Wednesday when Judge T.S. Ellis prevented prosecutors from showing photos of luxury items to the jury.
But Mueller’s team raising the prospect that Gates would not testify threw new uncertainty into how the trail would play out, although they said they were still evaluating whether or not they would have him testify.
Manafort’s defense team has made clear they plan to pin the blame on Gates, calling him the prosecution’s “star witness” in opening statements and arguing that he misled Manafort.
The President is paying close attention to TV coverage of the trial and has his legal team giving updates on developments, sources tell CNN, and began the day by blasting the investigation: “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!”
In a second tweet, Trump wrote: “Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly prominent and respected political leaders. He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn’t government tell me that he was under investigation. These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion – a Hoax!”
Trump sent yet another tweet late Wednesday morning about Manafort by asking who was treated worse: his former campaign chief or Capone.
“Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and “Public Enemy Number One,” or Paul Manafort, political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement – although convicted of nothing? Where is the Russian Collusion?” Trump tweeted.
Warning about ‘oligarchs’
Prosecutor Uzo Asoyne opened the door that Gates might not be called as a witness during an exchange with Ellis Wednesday over another witness’ testimony.
“He may testify in this case, he may not,” Asonye said. Asonye added his team is always re-evaluating whether to call a witness or not, depending on how the case is going and timing. He then quickly backtracked — adding that he didn’t mean to suggest Gates wouldn’t testify.
Ellis tried to hurry prosecutors along all day as they walked the jury through documents found in Manafort’s home with FBI agent Matthew Mikuska.
“If you’re to call Mr. Gates, this is a waste of time,” Ellis said, referring to Mikuska’s testimony about a memo titled “Gates agenda” that appeared to be a strategy memo from 2013.
During the back-and-forth about whether Gates will testify, Ellis noted the flurry of journalists leaving the courtroom, saying that they “scurried out of here like rats out of a sinking ship.”
Ellis also made his own connection to the larger Russian investigation with an interesting comparison of “oligarchs” to prominent US political donors.
Before the jury entered the room on Wednesday, Ellis urged both sides to avoid using the term “oligarch” when describing Manafort’s powerful patrons in Ukraine. Ellis told Mueller’s team not to give jurors the implication that oligarchs were criminals.
In making his point, Ellis, who is known as a sometimes colorful judge, even invoked two prominent US political donors.
“Mr. Soros would then be an oligarch … so would Mr. Koch … but we wouldn’t use that term,” Ellis said, referring to Democratic megadonor George Soros and the one of the billionaire Koch brothers, whose influential network supports Republican candidates.
No pictures, please
As prosecutors laid out their case Wednesday, Ellis prevented the jury from seeing photos of the luxury clothing, watch and other items that Manafort allegedly bought with hidden Ukrainian consulting money.
The photos of clothing with “Alan Couture” and “House of Bijan” labels are part of the prosecutors’ treasure-trove of evidence. Instead of showing pictures of the “closets full” of high-end clothing that Mikuska described on the stand, Ellis, Asonye and Mikuska have only talked about the items.
“Mr. Manafort is not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle,” Ellis said to Asonye with the jury out of the room.
Ellis, who has previously expressed his distaste for the special counsel’s approach to the case, curtailed the prosecutors’ presentation several times, telling them to move along while questioning Mikuska about documents found inside Manafort’s home.
Mikuska, the FBI agent who raided Manafort’s home last year, testified that he and other agents gathered outside Manafort’s door shortly after 6 a.m., then knocked on three separate occasions and announced that the FBI was there to execute a search warrant.
When nobody answered the door, the agents used a key they already had and entered the condo, Mikuska said. When they walked in, they saw Manafort standing nearby. The agent testified he was not aware how the FBI agents had the key.
Some news reports following the July 2017 search suggested that it was “no-knock raid,” but Mikuska disputed that notion.
Mikuska told the jury that Manafort’s name was on several documents found showing millions of dollars in loan agreements and wire transfers invoices.
His testimony was the first moment in the trial where prosecutors have gotten to the meat of their argument — that Manafort knowingly signed several kinds of false financial documents.
One document seized during the search was a loan agreement with Banc of California with Manafort listed as the applicant. This bank is among the financial institutions victimized by Manafort’s the alleged bank fraud.
Another document appears to show a wire transfer with Manafort’s name on it with a $3 million balance. That document said “wire into our account,” Mikuska said.
Consultant first witness of the day
Political TV ad consultant Daniel Rabin took the stand as the prosecution’s first witness of the day.
He spoke about his work in Ukraine with Manafort for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his political party, the Party of Regions. Rabin previously worked alongside Manafort and Tad Devine, who testified Tuesday about Manafort’s work in Ukraine.
Prosecutor Greg Andres said the witnesses are meant to establish for the jury the extent of the work Manafort did in Ukraine, up until Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014. Yanukovych has since fled to Russia.
Defense attorney Richard Westling asked Rabin whom he sent invoices to at Manafort’s company for his Ukrainian TV ad work. Rabin said they first went to an assistant at the company, then to Gates.
“Sounds like he handled a lot of logistics and business issues,” Westling said.