ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — After two weeks of bruising testimony by witnesses that painted the former Trump campaign chief as a crook with a spending addiction, it’s Paul Manafort’s turn to fight back.
The question is — can he?
In the wake of two-dozen prosecution witnesses and a mountain of paper evidence, Manafort’s future looks grim, legal experts following the trial told VICE News. But he’s got one big advantage the other side didn’t: The element of surprise.
“The defense has very few advantages in a trial,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York. “But one of them is that the prosecution doesn’t get to know what you’re planning to do.”
As dawn broke Monday, nobody outside Manafort’s inner circle knew which, or how many, people Manafort’s defense team plans to summon to try to clear his name. By contrast, the judge ordered the prosecution to publish their full list of 35 potential witnesses before trial began last week, giving Manafort a road map to their strategy against him.
Prosecutors are expected to rest their case against him today after a surprise delay on Friday. After that, it’s up to Manafort to mount a defense.
“The defense has very few advantages in a trial.”
Manafort’s history suggests he may have at least one wildcard up his sleeve. As a lifelong political consultant, Manafort spent decades outmaneuvering competitors in hardfought campaigns by crafting messages with the power to sway millions.
Some of his best-paying clients were foreign dictators who hired Manafort to rehabilitate their public images after some very shady behavior. Now, facing charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life, he’ll need to work that same dark magic on an audience of 12 jury members and four alternates, for his most important client ever: Himself.
ENTER THE SHADOW
The defense’s main goal will be casting a shadow of doubt over the minds of the jury about Manafort’s guilt, legal experts said. Their plan to do so apparently involves trashing the reputation of Manafort’s former right-hand man turned star witness, Rick Gates, to the fullest extent possible. Gates has been blamed by Manafort’s team for all financial wrongdoing at Manafort’s consultancy, while Manafort was distracted running political campaigns.
Legal experts said Manafort may call witnesses who can help show:
- That Manafort was too busy helping Ukrainian politicians win elections to keep a careful eye on his company’s bookkeeping
- That Gates had responsibility for the firm’s financial dealings
- That Manafort wasn’t really trying to hide anything from U.S. tax officials
- That Manafort has a history of civic service, having worked for U.S. presidents all the way back to Gerald Ford
- That Gates is a lying scoundrel who somehow weaseled his way into Manafort’s good graces — and never deserved his trust
BLAME RICK GATES
But blowing up Gates’ reputation likely won’t be enough, by itself, to secure Manafort’s freedom, legal analysts told VICE News, because the prosecution’s case also involves a lengthy — at times, mind-numbing — paper trail, and some two-dozen other witnesses.
Prosecutors have summoned Manafort’s tailor, landscaper, car dealer, audio equipment guy, and other merchants who recalled getting paid by wire-transfer from companies with odd-sounding names based on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
“The jury might not like them — but they don’t have to.”
Manafort’s tax preparers said they’d had no idea their client controlled those companies, and that it would have made a difference on his taxes. An FBI forensic accountant then popped in to show that Manafort’s passport had been used to open foreign bank accounts in Cyprus connected to those companies with the funny names. And when he was asked by his accountant at the time whether he had any foreign bank accounts, Manafort had replied, in an email presented in court, “No.”
While Manafort may be able to convince the jury that Rick Gates is a phenomenally sketchy character — a man who can’t even remember whether he embezzled money while working for President Trump’s inaugural committee (“It’s possible,” he told the court this week) — all that supporting evidence and testimony may prompt them to buy Gates’ version of events anyway, legal experts told VICE News.
“In my experience, cooperators that are bolstered by other witnesses, tapes or documents are usually believed by juries,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor and now managing director at Berkeley Research Group. “The jury might not like them — but they don’t have to.”
The defense took a big wack at Gates during his three days on the witness stand last week, accusing him of living a “secret life” while stealing from Manafort’s company by padding his expense accounts with bogus charges. Gates admitted to that theft. But he also admitted to performing a host of other crimes with, or for, Manafort.
“Chances are pretty good he’s going to get convicted.”
Manafort’s defense team will have a tough time explaining why, if Rick Gates did all the bad stuff, Manafort walked away with most of the money, legal experts said.
“It will be very hard for any defense lawyer to point at Gates and say, ‘He’s the mastermind,’ and that he carried out all these machinations in order to enrich Paul Manafort,” Cramer said. “Who has friends like that? That’s just absurd.”
Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor, agreed.
“The most damaging pieces of evidence in the case are the documents, such as tax returns, invoices, bank records and email messages,” she told VICE News. And those documents can’t be cross-examined, she pointed out (although Manafort’s attorney’s have indicated they may try to show Gates forged his boss’s signature).
As a result, observers said the momentum so far in this case seems to be on the prosecution’s side — unless Manafort has a secret ace up his sleeve.
“Chances are pretty good he’s going to get convicted,” Cramer said.
Cover image: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort departs from U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, U.S., February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo