Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort goes on trial Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia, in one of two criminal cases brought against him by special counsel Robert Mueller.
On the surface, the criminal charges against Manafort — tax evasion, failure to report foreign bank accounts and fraudulently obtaining bank loans — are unrelated to the core of Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to subvert the 2016 U.S. national election.
The charges stem from Manafort’s decade-long lobbying and political consulting work for Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych.
While working for Yanukovych and his pro-Russia Party of Regions between 2006 and 2015, Manafort and his former business partner, Rick Gates, allegedly earned tens of millions of dollars in fees while hiding the income from the Internal Revenue Service.
To avoid paying hefty taxes, prosecutors say, they set up secret shell companies and offshore accounts to funnel their Ukrainian proceeds disguised as “loans” to U.S. accounts to buy multimillion dollar properties and luxury goods.
After Yanukovych was deposed in 2014 and their Ukrainian income dwindled, Manafort and Gates allegedly came up with another scheme to obtain money: the two used their real estate properties in the United States as collateral to fraudulently secure more than $20 million in bank loans by “falsely inflating” their income.
In all, prosecutors say, more than $75 million flowed through the offshore accounts Manafort and Gates set up.
4 year investigation
Manafort has pleaded not guilty to the charges in Virginia, as well as to a separate indictment in federal court in Washington, D.C.
He’s been in jail since June, when the judge presiding over the Washington case revoked his bail for allegedly tampering with potential witnesses.
Manafort had been under federal investigation since 2014 over suspicion of illegal lobbying and financial improprieties. But he was ensnared in the Russia investigation last year after Mueller began examining ties between Trump campaign staff and Russia.
Muller has spent the last 14 months building the case against Manafort with a mountain of evidence seized from Manafort’s and Gates’s homes, computers and electronic devices, as well as documents obtained from financial institutions.
In recent days, prosecutors have submitted a list of hundreds of exhibits they plan to introduce at trial, including financial documents and photographs of luxury cars and real estate properties Manafort bought with his Ukrainian income.
“It’s all documented,” said Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor who is now a partner at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm. “You have lots and lots of exhibits that show wire transfers, bank accounts, monies that go into those bank accounts. There is going to be exhibits showing what he used the money for — to buy various properties and luxury goods.”
The special counsel has also enlisted as many as 35 witnesses to testify against Manafort. They include accountants, financial advisers, tax preparers and real estate agents.
But prosecutors’ star witness is likely to be Gates, who worked closely with Manafort in Ukraine and later followed him into Trump’s campaign as deputy chairman.
Gates was named as a co-defendant in the initial indictment handed down against Manafort last October.But when the special counsel hit the two men with a second indictment in February, Gates pleaded guilty to two lesser counts in exchange for cooperation.
Cutting a deal?
Manafort remained defiant, vowing to fight the charges. Still, the prospect of a conviction on the 32-count indictment and spending the rest of his life in prison could change his defense strategy, according to legal experts.
“The depth of the charges against Paul Manafort is such that at some point, the best decision for him will be to try to cut a deal,” said Lisa Griffin, a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at Duke University.
But Manafort doesn’t appear to have “valuable enough information to make these charges go away altogether,” Griffin said.
Short of an acquittal, some legal experts say the best hope for Manafort to avoid jail time remains a presidential pardon, though Trump has given no indication that he’ll pardon his former campaign chairman.
But other legal scholars say even a presidential pardon may not help. They say Manafort can be indicted in state court for many of the same crimes for which he's been charged by the special counsel, a circumstance for which a presidential pardon can not be applied, legal experts say. Presidential pardons can only be applied to federal crimes.
“It probably won’t do him much good because he has all these money laundering charges against him, which could be charged against him in New York state,” Akerman said.
“He’d be in worse position than he was when he started,” Akerman said. “The choice there is serving time in a New York state prison like Rikers Island, as opposed to a plush federal prison.”
With Trump frequently calling the Mueller investigation a "witch hunt," the outcome of Manafort's trial one way or another could determine the probe's credibility.
If Manafort is acquitted, “it will benefit President Trump tremendously, because it will cast into doubt all of the legitimacy of the process that is occurring,” said Joshua Dressler, a professor of criminal law and criminal procedure at Ohio State University.
On the other hand, if he is convicted, it will “demonstrate to the public that President Trump’s claims that the whole investigation is a witch hunt is not an accurate accusation,” Dressler said.