U.S. prosecutors raised the possibility on Wednesday that an expected star witness may not testify against President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, while Trump asked for an end to the Russia probe that led to the charges.
On the second day of Manafort’s trial, the first stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 14-month investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, the judge also tried to rein in prosecutors in their description of Manafort’s lavish lifestyle.
Manafort’s consulting work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine that earned him $60 million also took the spotlight in testimony in federal court in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. Prosecutors questioned veteran political consultant Daniel Rabin about the work he did for Manafort. Manafort, 69, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Rick Gates, Manafort’s former business partner, was expected to be a star government witness, and the defense assailed him in its opening statement to jurors on Tuesday as an embezzler. Gates pleaded guilty to making false statements after being indicted by Mueller.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis asked the prosecution whether they planned to have Gates testify.
“He may testify in this case, he may not,” said attorney Uzo Asonye.
After the judge asked Asonye for a clarification, Asonye said prosecutors are constantly evaluating the need to call a particular witness and his comments were “not to suggest we are not calling him.”
With the jury out of the room, the judge complained about prosecutors’ efforts to show that Manafort’s life was luxurious and blocked them from showing one document on home renovations.
“Mr. Manafort is not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle,” Ellis said.
Prosecutors have portrayed Manafort as a tax cheat who hid money in offshore accounts, and lied to borrow millions more against real estate in a bid to maintain an extravagant lifestyle once the work dried up.
Trump repeatedly has sought to discredit Mueller’s investigation, which is also looking into whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Moscow and whether the president has unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe.
The Republican president wrote on Twitter, “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,” adding that Mueller’s team is a “disgrace to USA.”
In another tweet referring to 1920s Chicago mobster Alphonse “Al” Capone, Trump wrote, “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?”
Some Democratic lawmakers said Trump’s tweets showed an intent to obstruct justice. Several Republican lawmakers said Mueller should be allowed to complete his investigation.
Russia has denied interfering in the election and Trump denies any collusion by his campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Moscow directed the hacking of political groups and disinformation on social media to undermine Trump’s presidential election opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, and aid Trump’s candidacy.
The question of collusion with Russia is not at the heart of the case against Manafort - the charges largely pre-date the five months he worked for Trump during a pivotal period in the 2016 race for the White House, some of them as campaign chairman. Manafort is charged with tax fraud, bank fraud and failing to report foreign bank accounts.
Mueller was appointed by the Justice Department’s No. 2 official last year to take over the FBI’s Russian investigation after Sessions recused himself from the probe because of his own meetings with Russia’s ambassador to Washington while serving as a campaign adviser to Trump.
FBI Special Agent Matthew Mikuska, an 11-year veteran of the agency who executed a search warrant on Manafort’s Alexandria condominium last year, told jurors about the documents that were seized, describing loan agreements and applications, invoices and wire transfers. Mikuska said agents arrived at around 6 a.m. and knocked three times before entering the condominium with a key.
Ellis chastised both sides for using the term “oligarch,” saying the word has negative connotations and could give jurors the impression that Manafort was “consorting and being paid by people who are criminals.”
“Of course, there will be no evidence about that,” the judge added, and said that oligarchs are merely rich people.
A Manafort conviction would give momentum to Mueller, who has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies, including 12 people court documents described as Russian intelligence agents who hacked into Democratic Party computer networks. An acquittal would support efforts by Trump and his allies to portray the investigation as politically motivated to threaten his presidency.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld in Alexandria, Virginia; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; writing by Will Dunham; editing by Grant McCool