In the opening statement of the trial against Paul Manafort, Assistant US Attorney Uzo Asonye — one of the prosecutors trying the case — informed the jury of six men and six women that the defendant owned a $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich. It is not illegal to own attire made from an oversized Ornithurae — Björk could not be reached for comment — unless said article was purchased with dirty money, and therein lies the rub.
Paul Manafort is a longtime Republican political operative who first made a name for himself by helping to salvage Gerald Ford’s nomination in 1976, only to jump ship soon after and join up with Ronald Reagan — the guy who threatened Ford’s nomination in the first place. He is currently on trial in a federal court in Alexandria. Manafort is charged with some 18 counts of bank and tax fraud after allegedly failing to account for around $60 million he accumulated working for various pro-Russian interests in Ukraine.
Specifically, Manafort has been accused of dodging taxes on the many millions he made working for the likes of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and Russian aluminum baron Oleg Deripaska. Between 2006 and 2016, he moved this money between offshore bank accounts and shell corporations, paying out “loans” to himself as he went. After Yanukovych was defeated in 2014, prosecutors allege Manafort lied to a variety of banks about his massive debt and withered income to secure millions more in loans. Along the way, according to The Washington Post, Manafort spent profligately on “expensive properties, fancy clothing and antique rugs.”
Ah, yes … expensive properties, fancy clothing, antique rugs and giant bird coats. It’s the oldest story in the world, if the allegations are true: Manafort stands accused of hiding his money to avoid paying taxes, and when his income began to flag, of robbing Peter to pay Paul in order to keep up appearances.
There are politics involved, because this is still planet Earth. The judge, one T.S. Ellis III, was appointed by Manafort’s old pal Reagan. The jury is from various localities in Northern Virginia, an area that voted heavily against Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Manafort’s legal team tried in vain to have the trial moved to far more Republican-friendly Roanoke where, presumably, everyone has a bird coat stashed in their closet.
The politics here, however, go far beyond Virginian geography and who appointed whom. Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager during the time period that encompassed the 2016 Republican National Convention. This was the same period when people began to pay serious attention to the Trump campaign’s association with various influential denizens of Moscow. Manafort has had financial dealings with Russia for years, a fair swath of which was allegedly not above board.
Most pointedly, Manafort was the star attendee of the now-infamous “Trump Tower Meeting,” during which Russian-aligned agents attempted to peddle Clinton dirt to the campaign, possibly in exchange for a lifting of the Magnitsky Act sanctions once Trump assumed office. On its face, that fact pulls both Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner into this vortex of the larger legal dilemma.
All that being said, neither special counsel Robert Mueller nor any of the prosecutors involved in the Manafort trial will be bringing up Donald Trump, Russian collusion or the 2016 presidential election. This trial will be confined to the specific crimes of Manafort as they pertain to his handling and hiding of his finances.
Manafort faces many years in prison if convicted on all counts. The fact that Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime business partner, has cut a deal with Mueller and will soon testify against his former colleague, bodes ill for the defendant and his coat of many feathers. In their opening, the defense has already claimed that Gates, not Manafort, is the master criminal here. This no-he-did-it tactic is standard issue, and it is worth noting that ol’ Ricky is the one who got the deal.
The point of this exercise is so brazenly clear that even the judge has made public comment on it. In an earlier ruling, Ellis emphasized the obvious nature of the fact that “the true target of the Special Counsel’s investigation is President Trump, not defendant, and that defendant’s prosecution is part of that larger plan.”
Indeed. This is Mueller looking for leverage against Trump, a star witness for the prosecution who wants to avoid a long sentence and knows where the bodies are buried. That potential star witness, right now, is Manafort. Mueller will use Gates to get to Manafort, and then use Manafort to get to Trump. He is entirely within his purview to do this, and unless Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein fires Mueller, or is himself fired in favor of someone who will, the dominoes will continue to fall all the way to the White House gates.
I was a paralegal once, way back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and worked a number of trials at the state and federal level in Boston. Forget everything you’ve ever seen on those courtroom-oriented TV shows. I am here to tell you, from personal experience, that the average trial is slightly less exciting than a stale package of pasteurized processed American cheese food.
After the heady buzz of the first day, it is almost always a dull grind until the verdict comes down, and even the first day can be a long slog. Take, for example, the prosecution’s first witness yesterday, Tad Devine, who testified about Manafort’s work in Ukraine and was about as exciting as a paint-drying contest. The rest of the trial will likely be no different. It will continue for the next three weeks and will be covered down to the last electron by the DC press, but don’t expect any fireworks coming out of that Alexandria courtroom.
Right now, this is just another trial of a guy who didn’t want to pay his taxes. Not a word will be said in that room that will make Donald Trump want to Fed-Ex himself to a non-extradition country … unless that word is “guilty.”
That’s when the real fun will begin. Never forget: In the end, it was an accountant who finally got Capone.