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Paul Manafort’s lawyers rip into Rick Gates’s credibility

The prosecution’s star witness, Rick Gates (at right), faced withering cross-examination from Stephen Downing (second from left). Defendant Paul Manafort is at far left.
The prosecution’s star witness, Rick Gates (at right), faced withering cross-examination from Stephen Downing (second from left). Defendant Paul Manafort is at far left. Dana Verkouteren via AP

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The courtroom showdown between Paul Manafort and his former right-hand man Rick Gates grew painfully personal Tuesday as a defense lawyer forced Gates, the prosecution’s star witness, to admit he had a trans-Atlantic extramarital affair and embezzled money to live beyond his means.

During his second day on the witness stand, Gates detailed the lies, phony documents, and fake profits he claims to have engineered at Manafort’s direction. Manafort, seated at the defense table, stared intently at his former protege and business partner, who has assiduously avoided Manafort’s gaze despite their proximity inside the federal courthouse in Alexandria.

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Gates’s testimony is central to the prosecutors’ case as they seek to prove that Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, committed bank fraud and tax crimes. Gates has testified that most of his crimes were committed on behalf of his former boss, while others were self-serving. He pleaded guilty in February as part of a deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller III.

As the first trial to emerge from the special counsel’s investigation, the Manafort case is a critical public test of Mueller’s work. His team of prosecutors and agents continue to probe Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether any Trump associates conspired with those efforts.

The most jarring testimony Tuesday came when Manafort’s lawyer Kevin Downing questioned Gates.

‘‘There was another Richard Gates, isn’t that right? A secret Richard Gates?’’ Downing asked.

The witness, who seemed to immediately understand the lawyer’s hint, began speaking in a quiet, strained voice, saying that about 10 years ago, he had ‘‘another relationship’’ — an extramarital affair.

Asked if that affair had taken place in London, Gates said it had occurred there and other places. For about two months, Gates said, he kept a separate apartment in London and admitted he had flown first class and stayed in luxury hotels as part of that relationship.

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Gates also admitted he embezzled from Manafort. When Downing asked if he stole as much as $3 million, Gates replied that he thought the figure was lower but agreed that he had taken money from Manafort without his permission.

Earlier in his testimony, Gates said he embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars while working for Manafort.

Many of Downing’s questions sought to buttress Manafort’s central defense strategy — that Gates, not Manafort, is the real villain, a man who told so many lies and stole so much money he could not remember all of his illegal activity.

In one of the most heated exchanges, Gates compared himself favorably to Manafort, suggesting he had chosen a better path by cooperating with the FBI.

‘‘After all the lies you’ve told and fraud you’ve committed, you expect this jury to believe you?’’ Downing asked.

‘‘Yes,’’ Gates responded flatly.

‘‘I’m here to tell the truth,’’ Gates said. ‘‘Mr. Manafort had the same path,’’ he said, adding later: ‘‘I’m trying to change.’’

At other moments, Gates seemed reluctant to admit the extent of his wrongdoing.

When Gates called a payment ‘‘an unauthorized transaction,’’ Downing asked him, ‘‘Why can’t you say embezzlement?’’

Gates replied: ‘‘It was embezzlement from Mr. Manafort.’’

US District Judge T.S. Ellis III, as he has repeatedly through the trial, interjected during Gates’s cross-examination.

When Gates said that Manafort ‘‘was very good at knowing where the money was and where it was going,’’ Ellis remarked, ‘‘He didn’t know about the money you were stealing, so he didn’t do it that closely.’’

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At one point, Gates conceded he might have swindled the Trump inaugural committee as well. When Downing asked if he submitted personal expenses for reimbursement, Gates replied, ‘‘It’s possible.’’

Gates had served as deputy chairman of the inaugural.

Downing moved quickly from one topic to the next, and at times the witness seemed confused as to which fraudulent activity they were discussing.

Gates worked for Manafort for more than a decade before the pair were indicted last year on bank fraud and tax charges. In February, Gates decided to plead guilty to lying to the FBI and conspiring against the United States. Under sentencing guidelines, he could get roughly five to six years in prison for those crimes, but he said he hopes his cooperation with the government will result in less time behind bars.

At the judge’s instruction, the trial has largely stayed away from mentioning the Trump campaign or Russian interference in the 2016 election, but prosecutor Greg Andres asked Gates a series of questions about what happened after the election, when Gates worked for the inauguration committee.

Andres showed Gates e-mails from Manafort requesting Gates use his position in the Trump campaign to offer favors to Stephen Calk, the founder of Federal Savings Bank, one of the banks that extended Manafort a loan in 2016. Those loans are a key issue in the trial because Gates has testified that he helped engineer false statements inflating Manafort’s income to qualify for the loans.

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First, Calk’s name was added to a list of national economic advisers to the campaign. Then, in November 2016, Manafort wrote Gates: ‘‘We need to discuss Steven Calk for Sec[retary] of the Army. I hear the list is being considered this weekend,’’ indicating that he wanted Gates’s help getting Calk considered for the job.

Manafort, in a December 2016 e-mail marked ‘‘urgent,’’ sent Gates a list of people he wanted invited to the inauguration. The list included Calk and Calk’s son.