WASHINGTON — Paul Manafort, the Republican political operative and lobbyist who helped run President Trump’s 2016 campaign, is scheduled to go to trial on financial fraud charges starting Tuesday in US District Court in Alexandria, Va.
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 in September. In that case, Manafort will face related charges in US District Court in the District of Columbia.
The 32-count indictment from the Virginia court charged Manafort with lying to banks, evading taxes, and disguising more than $30 million in overseas income by moving it through offshore accounts.
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.
Manafort’s supporters claim that these charges do not fit into Mueller’s inquiry, 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 probably elicit more calls from Trump’s supporters for Mueller to wind up his work.
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.
Manafort spent five months with the Trump 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.