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Manafort trial Day 12: Prosecution hammers Manafort’s ‘lies,’ defense chides ‘selective’ evidence

Prosecutors urged jurors in the trial of Paul Manafort to focus on financial records and Manafort’s “lies” — and to set aside personal feelings about a tainted star witness — as they offered their closing argument on Wednesday.

Pushing back, lawyers for the former Trump campaign chairman argued that the case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller is a mishmash of “selective” evidence that doesn’t amount to any crime at all.

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Those competing positions, made in Alexandria, Virginia, federal court during a daylong session, will soon give way to jury deliberations in the first case brought by Mueller’s Russia investigative squad to reach trial.

Mueller’s team went first with its final statements, with prosecutor Greg Andres spending more than 15 minutes delivering his case to the jurors before even naming Manafort’s longtime deputy Rick Gates, widely perceived as the government’s star witness. But Andres made clear the government believed it could secure a guilty verdict even without Gates’ testimony.

“The star witness in this case is the documents,” said Andres.

Gates provided incriminating testimony earlier in the week but was also forced to admit that he had stolen money from Manafort, in part to finance an extramarital affair. Manafort’s lawyers seized on the sordid sideshow, telling jurors that Gates led a “secret life” — without Manafort’s knowledge — and “showed himself to be the liar that he is.”

Anticipating this line of attack, Andres spent nearly two hours in the court’s morning session recounting the evidence against Manafort in painstaking detail, urging the jury to convict the GOP operative on all 18 criminal counts of tax and bank fraud. Gates isn’t the linchpin to these charges, he emphasized, just a corroborating voice for the voluminous documents and emails the jury was provided.

The outcome could have important political and even legal implications for Mueller’s wider probe into Russian election interference, although the charges have little direct relation to President Donald Trump or his 2016 presidential campaign.

Mueller’s prosecutor repeatedly told jurors that the government had provided them with “overwhelming proof” of the defendant’s guilt. He used the word “lie” more than 30 times to explain how Manafort misled everyone from his accountants to his bookkeepers and the banks that lent him millions of dollars under false pretenses.

“Mr. Manafort lied to keep more money when he had it, and he lied to get more money when he didn’t,” Andres told the jury.

Manafort’s team gets its turn

Manafort’s defense got its opportunity to present its own version of the case after Wednesday’s lunch break — and it seized on the argument that the prosecution failed to present evidence to convict Manafort beyond a reasonable doubt.

“They’ve done a good job of selectively pulling information together. But it’s been a selection,” said Richard Westling, a member of Manafort’s five-man legal team.

Westling portrayed Mueller’s team as if it had been fishing for a crime that never existed and said the indictments against Manafort didn’t happen until “the special counsel showed up and started asking questions.”

The defense also repeatedly emphasized that Mueller’s team isn’t made up of standard Justice Department prosecutors. It referred to the lawyers as part of the “special counsel” and suggested that “people do not get prosecuted by typical Justice Department prosecutors” for the transgressions alleged in Manafort’s case.

Westling stressed that the government’s goal was to present an “overwhelming” case to make it appear to the jury that there’s “only one conclusion.” But, he argued, there are “plenty of things that have not come out in this courtroom that leave significant doubts about this evidence.”

Manafort’s lawyer also insisted that his client couldn’t have been the party to such a wide-ranging bank- and tax-fraud enterprise because he had clued in everyone from Gates to his bookkeeper and accountant in various aspects of his finances.

“That’s not consistent with someone attempting to commit a fraud,” Westling said.

Westling instead cast Manafort as a talented political consultant who engendered bipartisan respect for his work on the campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Donald Trump. In those efforts, they said, he would involve a team to help him with his tasks. “Sometimes the people we rely on are trustworthy,” Westling said, “and sometimes they’re not.”

The defense team also continued its effort to paint Gates, the longtime former Manafort aide, as an admitted liar and thief.

“That is the real Rick Gates,” said defense attorney Kevin Downing, adding that the longtime deputy — who remained a part of Trump’s team after Manafort departed in August 2016 — “tried to look all clean-shaven” for the jury. But after one question, Downing said, “he fell apart and showed himself to be the liar that he is.”

Manafort’s attorneys dug in on who the Mueller team didn’t bring to the stand as it presented its case over the last two weeks. Manafort’s attorneys noted that the banking officials who were invited to testify didn’t have final approval over the loans the defendant was seeking, while the executives who did have that authority were left out of the case.

“It’s important for you to determine what that means,” Westling said.

Mueller’s team on Manafort: lies, lies, lies

Andres began his argument by summarizing the prosecution’s case presented over the past two weeks: Manafort lied to his bookkeeper, to his tax preparers and to the IRS. The longtime lobbyist filed false tax returns in five straight years, Andres said, and failed to pay taxes on nearly $ 15 million in income.

“You don’t need to be a tax expert to understand that,” Andres said, adding emphatically: “He is not above the law.”

The prosecutor seemed to recognize that Gates’ admissions of unethical behavior might have troubled jurors, and urged them to remember that the case did not hang simply on his account of Manafort’s alleged financial fraud and tax evasion.

“We’re not asking you to like him either,” Andres said.

Instead, the prosecutor urged the jurors to look for consistencies between how Gates testified — under penalty of perjury and a lengthy prison sentence — and other witnesses who recounted similar facts.

Andres told the jurors that Gates’ admission of an affair, made under a tough cross-examination, was unrelated to the case. “Was it to distract you? Does it matter?” the prosecutor asked. “Does it make Mr. Manafort any less guilty?”

Defense attorney Kevin Downing is pictured. | AP Photo

The Mueller prosecutor also made a point of ridiculing the defense’s claim that Gates’ admission of embezzling money from Manafort implicated him in the various tax- and bank-fraud schemes the prosecution has linked to Manafort. Gates was Manafort’s longtime protégé, Andres argued, and the two often worked together to perpetuate Manafort’s crimes. “He didn’t choose a Boy Scout,” Andres said.

Andres also said it was absurd to suggest that Gates parked $ 60 million in offshore accounts, then arranged payment of $ 15 million in Manafort’s personal expenses — all without Manafort’s knowledge.

“Is it possible or plausible,” the prosecutor asked, “that somebody, maybe even Rick Gates, signed” Manafort’s name to overseas bank accounts, deposited tens of millions in them and then paid Manafort’s massive personal bills?

“Does that make any sense at all? We should all be so lucky,” Andres added, prompting chortling from many in the courtroom.

At another point, Andres pointed to a series of email messages in which Manafort referred to accounts belonging to several offshore companies as “my” accounts.

The courthouse where Paul Manafort is being tried is pictured. | AP Photo

“These are all emails Mr. Manafort wrote himself. No Rick Gates on these emails — not one,” the prosecutor said.

At one point, Andres mangled the veteran lobbyist and political consultant’s name, appearing to call him “Mr. Manafraud.” It was not entirely clear whether it was a slip-up.

What’s next?

Prosecutors will get a short rebuttal after the defense team concludes its arguments. After that, Judge T.S. Ellis III — whose routine interjections have irked prosecutors throughout the trial — is expected to deliver lengthy instructions to the jury, which could begin deliberations as early as Wednesday afternoon.

At various times during the prosecution’s closing argument, Andres seemed to allude to the judge’s criticisms, particularly his exhortations to the prosecution to move briskly. A comment by Andres that his argument would take “90 minutes and certainly less than two hours” drew laughter from the audience and at least some jurors.

However, Andres also echoed at least one stern warning Ellis gave early in the case, emphasizing that — despite testimony about the millions of dollars Manafort spent on luxury goods — the defendant is not on trial for being rich.

“This case is not about Mr. Manafort’s wealth,” Andres said near the outset of his argument. “It is not a crime in this country to be wealthy. It is not a crime to have nice things. … We’re not in this courtroom today because Mr. Manafort is wealthy.”

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