High-Stakes Trial of Paul Manafort Gets Underway in Virginia

In this March 8, 2018, photo, Paul Manafort, left, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, walks with this wife Kathleen Manafort, as they arrive at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – On Tuesday morning, the verified Twitter account of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort appeared frozen in time.

“President Donald J. Trump!” the most recent post, dated December 19, 2016, says. “Nothing more to say except now it is time ‘To Make America Great Again!”

Twenty months after Manafort typed those words on a cold and mostly overcast day a month before Trump’s inauguration, a long line extended from inside the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, to the plaza outside.

Several news trucks and camera crew stood poised outside the courtroom’s main entrance and nearby, a group of roughly 20 protesters carried colorful signs that read: “It’s Mueller Time,” “Your Silence Gives Consent” and on one a jab at Manafort’s penchant for lavish spending. That sign read: “Was the $18,000 karaoke machine worth it?”

Another protester carried a life-size, homemade Trump cut-out. Crafted from cardboard, the paper Trump sports a red tie with the word “Traitor” running down the middle in black.

It took reporters roughly 20 minutes to get inside. Meanwhile, at the White House, Trump tweeted, “The Fake News Media is going CRAZY!”

“They are totally unhinged and in many ways, after witnessing first hand the damage they do to so many innocent and decent people. I enjoy watching,” the president said. “In 7 years, when I am no longer in office, their ratings will dry up and they will be gone.”

Moments later, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, spoke briefly with reporters in the White House driveway.

“As you know, I did not collude with Russia. I was colluding with voters in Michigan and Wisconsin,” she said, adding that Paul Manafort’s trial on tax-evasion and bank-fraud charges trial has “nothing to do” with the Trump campaign.

As Manafort’s federal trial gets underway at the courthouse in Alexandria on Tuesday, the questions hanging in the air are whether Trump’s onetime campaign chieftain will be found guilty and likely spend the rest of his life in prison, or whether he’ll somehow “flip” and provide Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team with information that incriminates the president of the United States.

The answer to the latter question — at least for now — was a definitive no from Manafort attorney Kevin Downing as he entered the courthouse.

“No chance,” he said when a reporter asked if his client is prepared to cooperate with the special counsel to avoid the consequences of a trial.

The questions surrounding Mueller and his investigation are no less profound — this is the team’s first trial since Mueller’s appointment more than a year ago.

The main action on Tuesday is the final selection of the 12 jurors who will provide most if not all of the answers.

This morning the pool of 65 jurors faced questions from prosecutors, Manafort’s defense team and U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III as they strive to empanel an impartial jury for the highly publicized and politically charged trial.

The pool is comprised of 32 men and 33 women; from it, 12 jurors and four alternates will be chosen.

The potential jurors were packed into the courtroom early Tuesday morning, in numbers so great that about half the reporters who turned out to cover the trial were asked to vacate their seats and relocated to an overflow courtroom three floors down.

Manafort meanwhile appeared relaxed as sat quietly with his defense team. Wearing a black suit and crisp white, button-down shirt, he threw his arm over the back of a high leather chair he sat in next to Downing, and smiled politely at jurors during attorney introductions.

He also occasionally glancing toward his wife, Kathleen Manafort, and he winked at her before turning his attention back to the prospective jurors.

Judge Ellis began the morning by saying he would not rule on Manafort’s request to throw out exhibits specific to Ukraine.

“The government is correct that the documents show the nature of funds were related to income that had to be reported and is therefore relevant,” Ellis said. “The fact is, some of the documents may be relevant but they could be inadmissible if they are cumulative, unfairly prejudicial or confusing but I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

Ellis said, as the trial moves forward, he does want the attorneys to try to trim the exhibit list, and warned both side that he did not wish to see the 400-page, 50 exhibit list suddenly “dumped” on jurors when it came time to render a verdict.

The issue of Ukrainian evidence would be addressed long before then, he said.

Despite the seriousness of the charges lodged against Manafort, there was at least one moment of levity Tuesday morning. After one juror interrupted Ellis as he asked whether her brief employment by the Justice Department in the 1980s would would impact her ability to render an impartial verdict, the judge smiled and said, “You have to let me finish my question for the record.”

The exchange inspired laughter in the courtroom. “I know I’m predictable but my wife says it’s one of my only virtues,” Ellis joked.

While Trump will hover like a specter over the proceedings, neither the 2016 president election nor any of the many incendiary statements the president has made since about the investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives are likely to come up.

Prosecutors said last week they don’t expect the word “Russia” to be mentioned at all.

Instead, the trial will center on Manafort’s Ukrainian consulting work and touch only briefly on his involvement with the president’s campaign.

Prosecutors have lined up 35 witnesses and more than 500 pieces of evidence they say will show how Manafort earned more than $60 million from his Ukrainian work and then concealed a “significant percentage” of that money from the IRS.

They will also argue that Manafort fraudulently obtained millions more in bank loans, including during his time on the campaign.

In particular, prosecutors say they will introduce evidence that a chairman of one of the banks allowed Manafort to file inaccurate loan information in exchange for a role on the Republican campaign and the promise of a job in the Trump administration that never materialized.

Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him. The star witness of his trial is likely to be another Trump campaign aide, Rick Gates, who spent years working for Manafort in Ukraine and is also accused of helping him falsify paperwork used to obtain the bank loans.

Gates, who cut a plea deal with Mueller earlier this year, is expected to testify against his former mentor.

Gates will also likely figure in Manafort’s second trial scheduled for September in Washington, D.C. That trial will focus on allegations that the longtime political consultant acted as an unregistered foreign agent for Ukrainian interests and made false statements to the U.S. government.

The Associated Press contributed to this report …

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