As first days go, it was a busy one in the federal trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
The trial heads into its second day Wednesday, a day after the jury was seated, both sides presented their opening statements and the government’s first witness took the stand.
Judge T.S. Ellis said before the trial began that he wanted the proceedings to wrap in three weeks or less, and Tuesday’s proceedings lived up to the Alexandria, Va., courthouse’s reputation as the “Rocket Docket.”
Manafort’s trial on bank and tax fraud charges is the first to stem from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In its opening statement Tuesday, the government portrayed Manafort as a man who led a lavish lifestyle and held a disregard for American financial law.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye said Manafort made tens of millions of dollars as a political consultant in Ukraine, but used offshore shell companies and foreign bank accounts to avoid paying U.S. taxes on much of the money.
The income that Manafort allegedly shielded from authorities, he used to buy multi-million-dollar properties, antique rugs and luxury cars, Asonye said. In one case, Manafort even purchased a $15,000 jacket “made from an ostrich.”
Asonye said Manafort didn’t just lie to the Internal Revenue Service. Asonye said Manafort lied also to his own bookkeepers to avoid paying taxes, and he lied to banks in an effort to qualify for loans he wouldn’t otherwise have been approved for.
“All of this was willful,” Asonye said. “Paul Manafort knew about the law.”
Manafort’s lawyers presented a very different picture.
Defense attorney Thomas Zehnle focused much of his opening statement on the question of trust, particularly the trust that Manafort placed in his former right-hand man, Rick Gates.
Gates and Manafort worked closely together for years, including in Ukraine, and they were indicted at the same time by Mueller.
But after initially fighting the charges, Gates pleaded guilty in February and has been cooperating with the special counsel’s office since then. He is expected to be the government’s star witness.
Zehnle placed the blame for Manafort’s current troubles on Gates’ shoulders.
“We’re primarily here because of one man — Rick Gates,” Zehnle said.
He said Gates took advantage of his position overseeing day-to-day operations of Manafort’s consulting firm. He accused him of embezzling millions of dollars and manipulating transactions to “line his own pockets.”
Gates’ guilty plea, in Zehnle’s telling, is nothing more than an attempt by Gates to save his own skin.
The government’s first witness on Tuesday was Tad Devine, a political consultant who has done work for many prominent Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Al Gore and John Kerry. Devine also worked closely with Manafort on consulting work in Ukraine.
Under government questioning, Devine described Manafort as a man very much the hands-on boss in their Ukraine work, testifying that “Paul was in charge” of business operations.
Under cross-examination, Devine also portrayed Manafort as a skilled political operator, but also a hard worker.
“It was a tremendous amount of work and I have to say, Paul worked harder than anyone,” Devine said. “There were emails sometimes throughout the night.”
On Wednesday, the government says it will call another political consultant, Daniel Rabin, to take the stand, as well as an unnamed FBI agent, among others.
In releasing the jurors on Tuesday, Judge Ellis warned them against watching the news or talking to family about the case, even though there was sure to be “intense curiosity” about it. He also told them not to read, watch or listen to any news reports about the trial.
He urged them, in closing, to “keep an open mind.”