Jury to begin weighing US charges against ex-Trump aide Paul Manafort
Former Donald Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort faces 18 counts related to tax and bank fraud (AFP Photo/MANDEL NGAN)

A jury on Thursday will begin weighing the fate of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman standing trial on bank and tax fraud charges that could put him behind bars.

The judge gave the jury of six men and six women in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, their final instructions on Wednesday after closing arguments.

During the two weeks of testimony, witnesses described how Manafort routed $16 million in income hidden in foreign bank accounts to U.S. vendors to purchase real estate, bespoke suits and antique rugs, income he is charged with omitting from his tax returns.

The case is the first to go to trial arising out of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, although the charges against Manafort largely predate his five months on the campaign.

Manafort, 69, a veteran political consultant, made his fortune bringing pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych to power in Ukraine in 2010. When Yanukovych fled the country in 2014, the political work dried up and Manafort lied about his finances to get loans from banks, prosecutors said.

In their closing argument on Wednesday, defense counsel argued that prosecutors had not proved Manafort willfully committed any crimes. They said he trusted employees, his accountants and bookkeeper to handle his financial affairs, and at times misplaced that trust.

The defense took direct aim at Rick Gates, Manafort’s long-time right-hand man, who was charged in the same indictment but pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government.

Gates’ testimony was the highlight of the trial, and defense attorney Kevin Downing sought to undercut his credibility as he described the married father of four’s “secret life” in London, that Gates admitted included an extramarital affair.

But Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Andres told jurors in his closing that the star witness of the trial was “documents,” and that, once the jury began deliberating, they should look at the exhibits to see how they corroborated Gates’ testimony.

While some legal experts predicted the jury reach a decision before the weekend, others said the jury would likely deliberate longer, given the complexity and historic nature of the case.

“If this were a run-of-the-mill case, you could have a verdict Thursday afternoon or Friday because they don’t want to come back Monday,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor who has watched parts of the trial. “This is a monumental case, and I would be surprised if they don’t come back Monday to examine the jury instructions and the exhibits.”

A Manafort conviction would undermine efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers to paint Mueller’s inquiry as a political witch hunt, while an acquittal would be a setback for Mueller.

reporting by Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld in Alexandria, Virgina; editing by Grant McCool