ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — On Wednesday morning, special counsel Robert Mueller's team of prosecutors told a standing-room-only courtroom that the tax and bank fraud evidence against Paul Manafort is simply “overwhelming.”
The besieged political operative's defense fired back with a two-lawyer tag-team closing argument, lasting over an hour, that boiled down to: No, it isn’t.
This simple answer, they said, explained why Manafort called no witnesses to testify in his defense.
Prosecutors may have unloaded a dump-truck of paper evidence in this case, including emails and financial records — and brought forward over two-dozen witnesses, from Manafort’s bookkeeper to the guy who sold him fancy suits and got paid via offshore companies with funny-sounding names. But Manafort’s attorneys argued that the case against their client remained unproved.
“Let’s talk a bit about reasonable doubt,” defense attorney Richard Westling told the jury. “Hold the government to its burden, ladies and gentlemen.”
The tax and financial disclosure laws were complex, and Manafort never really tried to break them or hide the tens of millions he was paid via foreign bank accounts for his political consulting work in Ukraine, his attorneys argued.
Earlier Wednesday morning, prosecutor Greg Andres had pointed out that Manafort, a man with a law degree from Georgetown University, seemed pretty familiar with tax and legal terms in his emails presented in court.
But Manafort’s attorneys countered that his tragic flaw was placing too much trust in his former right-hand man, Rick Gates, only to discover later that Gates had been stealing from him and monkeying with the company’s books. Gates, they said, had embezzled to fund his “secret life” in London, which included an apartment and an adulterous liaison.
“How foolish he must feel,” said Manafort’s attorney Kevin Downing, gesturing to Manafort, who huddled a few feet away at a table with the rest of his attorneys. “This [Gates] is someone Mr. Manafort trusted…. And what a big mistake that was.”
Manafort’s lawyers pointed out that it was not their job to prove Manafort was innocent, but to simply to show that the government hadn’t sealed an airtight case against him. (According to one tabulation, if convicted on all 18 counts, Manafort faces a possible 305 years in prison. )
So they set out to poke every hole they could.
“Those signatures on those foreign accounts are not Mr. Manafort’s. They are Rick Gates’,” Downing said.
— Manafort’s lawyers again cast doubt on whether or not their client had signed off on transactions associated with Cyprus-based bank accounts
“They don’t feel like buddy loans, which is what the government wants you to believe,” Westling said. “There is simply no evidence that the Federal Savings Bank was a victim of fraud.”
— Westling argued that the $16 million in loans Manafort took from Chicago’s Federal Reserve Bank after Trump won the election would have been granted even if Manafort hadn’t made any false statements. Prosecutors argue Manafort “provided false information” about his financial standing on his loan applications. But the high collateral, up-front fees and interest rate above 7 percent meant the loans made good business sense for the bank, they argued. (The bank has since lost almost $10 million on those loans, which were the largest in its history, according to testimony in the trial.)
“There’s not a single bit of evidence that any of these banks came to the government and complained about fraud,” Westling said.
— Wrestling contended that none of the banks Manafort allegedly defrauded cared to complain until investigators dropped in to ask about Manafort’s activities.
“They’ve done a good job of selectively pulling that information together — but it has been selective,” Westling said.
— Finally, Manafort’s team argued that prosecutors cherry-picked evidence to build the worst possible criminal case against their client, for reasons they invited the jury to speculate about. “Clearly the goal was to put together all the evidence they could…. What’s the purpose?,” Wrestling asked.
Westling hinted darkly that prosecutors for the special counsel’s office, which have been probing Russian interference in the 2016 election and brought this financial case against Manafort, have been motivated by factors that didn’t come up in this trial.
On the surface, the charges against Manafort all cover his alleged financial crimes. And Mueller’s prosecutors has taken pains to keep the trial focused on the nuts and bolts of the specific charges against Manafort. But the political element has lurked in the background of this trial, and occasionally been raised by the defense team in the form of questions about Manafort’s work in U.S. campaigns. Those forays were typically met with swift objections by the prosecution, which were sustained by the judge.
The judge in the case, T.S. Ellis, has written that prosecutors’ real purpose in charging Manafort is to pressure him into agreeing to tell all he knows about Trump. But Judge Ellis has also called that approach permissible, and limited tangential discussion about political issues not directly related to the substance of the financial charges against Manafort.
Trump has repeatedly called the special counsel’s investigation a “witch hunt,” and claimed it’s been pursued by investigators who are biased against him and his allies.
“There are plenty of things that have not come out in the courtroom… that leave significant doubts about this evidence,” Westling said.
READ MORE COVERAGE FROM THE TRIAL:
- Rick Gates spills the beans on the super-rich Ukrainians who paid Paul Manafort millions
- Manafort has a new scapegoat in his defense against Mueller
- The wise-cracking judge in Paul Manafort’s case may be starting to chill out
- Manafort's accountants appear just as confused about his finances as you are
- Rick Gates says he did crimes with Paul Manafort and stole his money
- Rick Gates can’t remember if he stole money from Trump’s inaugural committee
Cover image: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives for arraignment on a third superseding indictment against him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on charges of witness tampering, at U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S. June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst