ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) –The trial of Paul Manafort is not about Donald Trump nor is it directly about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin but it is the first time a member of the president’s campaign inner-circle faces a judge and jury stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s year-long investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s opening arguments at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, prosecutors on Mueller’s team have repeatedly told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III there would no mention of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign or Russian collusion during the trial.
Instead, prosecutors say, that will focus on evidence the probe turned up allegedly showing the former Trump campaign chairman was engaged in a complex international money laundering scheme in which more than $30 million flowed through offshore accounts in Cyprus, Saint Vincent, the Seychelles and elsewhere.
In June, Judge Ellis expressed skepticism over the correlation between special counsel’s probe and the 32-count indictment brought against Manafort in February.
Ellis was blunt with prosecutors, telling Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben the indictment appeared to be a means of “exerting pressure” on Manafort so he would “sing” on Trump and others.
Despite this, Ellis eventually concluded Mueller had stayed within the bounds of his authority in fashioning the indictment, “following the money paid by pro-Russian officials” to the onetime Trump strategist.
The money trail in Manafort’s wake is a considerable one given his longtime activities as a political operative.
Manafort’s career began in the early 1980s when he and fellow Republican strategists Charlie Black and Roger Stone formed the lobbying firm Black, Manafort and Stone.
Over the years, the firm represented and lobbied on behalf of a number of controversial figures, including Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and dictators Jonas Savimbi, of Angola, and Mobuto Sese Seko, of Zaire. Meanwhile in the U.S., the firm’s earnings were buoyed by clients like Johnson & Johnson and Bethlehem Steel.
He parlayed the work into advisory roles for the presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole.
In 1995, Manafort formed a new firm, Davis, Manafort and Freedman, a company that would eventually morph into two entities, Davis Manafort Inc. and Davis Manafort International, that are at the heart of the case against him in Virginia.
According to the indictment, in 2006, pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych called Manafort and enlisted his services after suffering an election defeat in 2004. With Manafort’s help, and after a campaign of voter intimidation, Yanukovych was elected Ukraine’s president in 2010.
At about this time, court document say, Manafort created Pericles, an equity firm which relied on financing from Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who made his fortune in aluminum. In their first deal together, Deripaska provided the funding for the $18.9 million purchase of Chorne More, an Odessa, Ukraine-based media company.
But things quickly went south for the partnership during the global economic crisis of 2008. Buffeted by heavy losses, court documents says, Deripaska wanted to be repaid for the Chorne More investment and sought access to Manafort’s financial records.
At the time, Deripaska claimed the records might prove Manafort defrauded him by squandering funds earmarked for the deal. It now appears Deripaska never got hold of those records.
But the court documents do suggest that by 2014, Manafort’s income from his contacts in the Ukraine had dried up, and he was financing his homes and a lavish lifestyle by taking out loans against various real estate holdings.
Prosecutors say it is now clear that Manafort often lied in banking documents, inflating his wealth to secure bigger loans.
According to the Mueller team, Manafort avoided Deripaska for years, but resumed communicating with him after the consultant signed on to serve as Trump’s campaign manager.
In April, the New York Times reported Manafort emailed a former business partner, Konstantin Kilimnik, and shared details of his newfound role on the Trump team, asking Kilimnik: “How do we use to get whole?” and “Has OVD seen?”
OVD was shorthand for Oleg Vladimirovich Deripaska, according to Manafort’s spokesman Jason Maloni.
The trial in Alexandria is expected to last three weeks and Mueller has called 35 witnesses to testify, including Manafort’s former business partner, Rick Gates.
Gates plead guilty in February to conspiracy and making false statements to the FBI .
Manafort’s attorneys have called a dozen witnesses to testify on their client’s behalf but their names have not been made public ahead of trial.
Manafort has maintained his innocence since his Virginia home was raided by the FBI last year. Among other things, he has claimed the charges fall outside the scope of Mueller’s authority, the trial venue inherently unfair given its proximity to the White House, and that finding impartial fair jurors would be next to impossible given the intense media focus on his case.
But he’s failed to coax Ellis to see things his way.
For some perspective on what might lie ahead, Courthouse News reached out to Elizabeth de la Vega, a former federal prosecutor and chief of the San Jose U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California.
In de la Vega’s view, one thing not likely to happen is Manafort himself taking the stand.
“If he were to do that, he opens himself up to a wide-ranging cross-examination that could include not only matters raised in his direct testimony, but also subjects that relate to his credibility,” she said. “That would be a Pandora’s box his attorneys would probably advise against opening. It’s also often difficult for defendants to maintain composure under cross-examination, so there could be a concern that he might not make the best impression,” de la Vega added.
Caroline Polisi, a white collar criminal defense attorney at Pierce Bainbridge in New York, said she too would be “shocked” if Manafort testified.
“Only in very rare circumstances do I ever recommend a criminal defendant testify in his or her own defense – it’s simply too risky,” Polisi said. “In Manafort’s case, his actions leading up to trial have shown his arrogance and his belief that the rules don’t apply to him. That will not play well to a jury.
“Of course, his attorneys can’t prohibit him from testifying if he wants to, but my guess is that they’ve strongly recommended against it,” Polisi said.
If found guilty Manafort faces 10 years for each count on the 32-count indictment. At 69 years old, even a 10 or 15 year sentences could equate to life in prison. But if Manafort is found guilty, neither de la Vega and Polisi think a Trump pardon is in the cards.
“Even though Trump is often wildly irrational, and even though the GOP is as effective in restraining him as a wet dishrag, I do not think Trump [will pardon him,]” de la Vega said. “It would not help Trump in the least, although he may not understand that. Second, there would always be the possibility of state charges. Third, for a pardon to be effective as to federal charges, Trump would have to pardon Manafort, not only for the charges in the Virginia case, but also, preemptively, for the charges in the DC case.”
Further, pardon for Manafort, who is also under investigation for other financial crimes, would have to broad enough to cover up to 20 years of Manafort’s activities.
“Such a pardon would be extraordinarily risky, even with the complicit Congress,” de la Vega said.
But Trump can be a wildcard, Polisi said.
“He’s certainly signaled [he may pardon him] when he came out with his signature statement,” Polisi said.
When Manafort was put in jail ahead of trial after a federal judge found he attempted to tamper with a potential witness, Trump tweeted that what was done to Manafort was “very unfair.”
“Unfair’ is a bit of code word for Trump. He’s also used it to describe the treatment of many of the subjects of his recent pardon spree. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Polisi said.
On Monday, Mueller asked Ellis to reject a request last week from Manafort seeking the removal of 50 exhibits related to his lobbying work for Yanukovych.
According to the 12-page filing, the request be denied since “Manafort’s motion seeks to preclude documents simply because they reference the names of various Ukrainian officials.”
The minimum standard defense attorneys applied when asking the evidence be thrown out simply doesn’t meet muster, Mueller explained.
“[If their request was approved] it would also exclude virtually every exhibit containing the name of several key government witnesses, thereby preventing the jury from hearing evidence that corroborates the witness’s expected testimony and demonstrates the witness’s credibility,” Special Counsel argued.
The emails and memos documenting Manafort’s communication with Ukrainian clients in 2010 and 2012 should also be kept in because “there is nothing prejudicial about documents setting forth how the ads were made, how consultants were paid, and who approved their work,” the filing states.
The correspondence Manafort had with his contacts in Ukraine will provide valuable context for trial, prosecutors explain.
Since government witnesses will testify about the nature of Manafort’s work in Ukraine and the “payment scheme” which ensued, “it would be fundamentally unfair to permit Manafort to keep such corroborative evidence from the jury, while he simultaneously attacks the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise challenges the tax and FBAR charges.”
On a related note, Manafort on Monday night dropped one of his appeals in his case in D.C. Federal Court, this one involving his assertion that Mueller’s does not have the authority to prosecute him for crimes unrelated to the 2016 election.