You heard about the ostrich jacket, right?
Bank fraud and tax evasion don’t always make for the most riveting trials, but it’s rare that one involves the former campaign chairman for the sitting president. And it’s unprecedented that the special counsel bringing charges is also investigating Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.
As week two of the Paul Manafort trial gets underway, here’s what you missed, what to watch, and what of it — if anything— has to do with the president.
What we know
Manafort had a lavish lifestyle. The trial began with prosecutors talking about Manafort’s big-spender ways: He had multiple homes, including one in The Hamptons with a tennis court and a flower bed shaped “M.” He installed a $2 million sound system and wore $16,000 suits. And, yes, America, we learned that ostrich leather jackets are a thing. Manafort paid $15,000 for one.
At one point the judge had to remind prosecutors that it wasn’t a crime to be rich. But the government argued it wasn’t the stuff he bought but rather it was how he paid for it: for major purchases, Manafort would send wire transfers from offshore companies. And indeed, Manafort’s landscaper testified that he was his only customer who paid by international wire transfers.
His own accountant testified he committed crimes
One hallmark of this Manafort trial is just how many people were given immunity to testify against him. That list includes five accountants from the firm who handled his business and personal paperwork.
On Friday and Monday, one of those accountants took the stand and said she knew Manafort was committing fraud and helped him alter a tax document, disguising $900,000 in foreign income as a loan in order to reduce his tax burden.
The judge is entertaining.
Judge T.S. Ellis is the 78-year-old appointee of President Reagan overseeing the trial in Northern Virginia. He is no-nonsense jurist known for preferring speedy trials, avoiding the press, and exacting dry humor in the court room. Some of his greatest hits so far, per CNN:
■ He told this jury that, “I hope you will not hurry to slit your wrists. There is a positive side. The court will provide your lunch, every day. Don’t, however, look for the baked Alaska. You won’t find it. But the menu will be palatable stuff.”
■ Upon allowing a juror to bring in birthday cake, presumably for one of the jurors, Ellis offered that he stopped having birthdays: “My wife is younger and I’m waiting for her to catch up.”
■ And here’s a sign the trial might move quickly: “We are close to the end of this process because I’m hungry,” Ellis offered.
What to watch for
Gates’s testimony. On Monday afternoon the jury heard from the prosecution’s star witness, Rick Gates, who was Manafort’s longtime deputy and business partner. He laid out how he and Manafort committed the alleged crimes of tax and bank fraud. And yes, Gates has a deal with special counsel Robert Mueller.
This is rough testimony for Manafort, whose defense team has indicated they will seek to blame Gates. But given how well Gates and Manafort know each other, this could get very personal very quickly.
What is Manafort’s main line of defense?
Let’s recap: Gates is expected to testify on Manafort’s motive for the alleged fraud and Manafort’s accountant testified how he logistically did it and with what paperwork. So what does Manafort have to say in his defense? Other than trying to pin some — or all — of the blame on Gates, the deputy, it is unclear how his lawyers will prove the underlying crimes never happened.
Yet, the trial hinges on creating such doubt if Manafort is not to be convicted.
What will Trump tweet?
Trump is following this trial very closely. Since its start, Trump has been tweeting a lot about Manafort, even saying that he is being treated worse than famed mobster Al Capone. (Fun fact: Capone wasn’t convicted for mobster stuff, but, yes, tax evasion.)
Will Trump soon get himself in trouble by tweeting the wrong thing about Manafort? Or, could he announce that he’s giving his former aide a pardon?
What does any of this have to do with Trump, anyway?
Nothing so far. Nearly all of the crimes of which Manafort has been accused happened before he was directly linked to Trump. Even when his alleged crimes overlapped with his time with Trump, they appear to have nothing to do with the president.
That said, it is important to note how Manafort made much of his money: He worked for a pro-Russian Ukrainian president as a political consultant. He was paid largely by a Russian oligarch for these efforts. He tried to hide millions of that income in Cyprus.
Many believe that Mueller has applied a lot of pressure on Manafort with the hope that he will somehow flip and dish on Trump. But it’s not clear if Manafort has any dirt on Trump . . . or whether there is any prosecutable dirt on Trump at all.