Paul Manafort is first to go on trial in Russia probe

WASHINGTON: Paul Manafort on Tuesday will become the first of President Donald Trump’s former aides to go on trial, accused of bank and tax fraud by federal investigators probing Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Despite a focus on financial crimes, the trial could yield politically damaging headlines about a man who ran Trump’s campaign for three months and attended a June 2016 meeting with Russians offering damaging information about Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton that is now a focal point of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 14-month-old probe.
“My guess is you will see OJ-type frenzy at this court event,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump aide and longtime Manafort associate, referring to the 1995 OJ.
Simpson murder case. “I really hope the president continues to watch and make public comments about this case.”
He said Trump could help the public understand what is at stake in Mueller’s probe, which both Trump and Caputo have called a “witch hunt” aimed at ending his presidency.
Prosecutors are expected to argue that Manafort’s lavish spending on suits, homes and luxury items did not match the income declared on his tax returns and that he misled lenders when he borrowed tens of millions of dollars against New York real estate.
Joshua Dressler, a law professor at Ohio State University, said the evidence against Manafort, 69, appears strong, but that he drew a favourable judge in the 78-year old T S Ellis, who is known to be tough on prosecutors, and said the politically charged climate increases the chances of a hung jury.
Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty, faces 18 counts.
The nine bank fraud and conspiracy charges alone carry maximum sentences of 30 years each, and Judge Ellis noted in April that Manafort was potentially facing the rest of his life behind bars.
Given the strength of the evidence, however, some legal experts have suggested Manafort may be banking on an eventual pardon from Trump, who has called his former campaign chairman a “nice guy” who has been treated unfairly.
The trial, starting with selection of a 12-member jury, coincides with growing speculation that Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen may cooperate with federal investigators against the president, now 18 months in office.
Mueller’s team has estimated it could take 8 to 10 days to present its case to the jury, suggesting the trial may last at least three weeks.
Mueller submitted 500 pieces of evidence, including tax filings and mortgage statements, and pictures of luxury watches and homes to illustrate Manafort’s wealth.
There are 35 potential witnesses, many of them bankers and accountants expected to verify documents and speak to Manafort’s alleged intent to violate the law.
Five witnesses were granted immunity.
Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for Trump, said no one facing trial should proceed expecting a pardon, but he did not rule one out.
Giuliani said he and Jay Sekulow, another Trump lawyer, had told the president: “This would be a very bad thing to do now.”
But once Mueller’s Russia investigation ends, Giuliani said, “he has a right to consider it… It’s his power.”
Mueller’s team said it would not present evidence about any possible campaign collusion with Russia at the trial in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, potentially saving it for a second Manafort trial in Washington in September.
Even so, prosecutors have asked permission to discuss Manafort’s work for pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine, which they allege was a source of wealth he laundered through overseas bank accounts.
Manafort is seeking to exclude information on the details of that work. The judge has yet to rule.
If allowed, prosecutors may delve deeper into Manafort’s Russian connections. — Reuters