WASHINGTON (Circa) — A Virginia jury continued deliberating the fate of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort Monday, weighing 18 counts filed against him by special counsel Robert Mueller related to alleged tax fraud and bank fraud, after a three-week trial that answered a lot of questions but also raised some new ones.
Mueller’s team is tasked with investigating possible connections between President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian efforts to influence the election. The probe has so far revealed no wrongdoing by the campaign, but it did uncovered years of alleged financial crimes by Manafort outside of his work for Trump.
During its first day of deliberations Thursday, jurors asked for a clarification of the term “reasonable doubt” and for an exhibit list cross-referenced with the count of the indictment each exhibit was related to. Judge T.S. Ellis provided a definition of reasonable doubt, but he denied the request for an exhibit list.
With few other hints of what the jury is thinking or discussing, legal experts have struggled to interpret these questions as signs the jury is leaning toward one side or the other. Much has also been said about the failure to reach a verdict in the first two days of deliberation, with some saying it bodes well for the defense and others arguing this is not an abnormal amount of time for a jury to spend on a complex 18-count fraud case.
Famed defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, who has at times been highly critical of Mueller’s team, cautioned against reading too much into the jury’s notes.
“It’s impossible to know what the jury is thinking,” he said. “Remember, a question can be a reflection of one juror’s concern. One juror could want to know what reasonable doubt is.”
Whatever the jury decides, the 12 days of testimony in the trial laid bare details of Manafort’s life, both noteworthy and mundane, and provided fresh insight into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the presidential campaign Manafort once chaired.
Prosecution witnesses detailed for jurors how much money Paul Manafort was receiving and who was paying him for his consulting work. The defense argued this was all typical overseas consulting work for a top-level political strategist and insisted he was not responsible for any incorrect reporting of his financial information.
"Paul Manafort has been involved at the pinnacle of U.S. politics for nearly 40 years and during those years has advised multiple presidential candidates," defense attorney Tom Zehnle said in his opening statement. "Paul Manafort has rendered valuable service to our system of government."
Manafort received tens of millions of dollars working for Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs, though Ellis restricted prosecutors’ use of the term “oligarch.” Accountants and experts testified at length about where Manafort’s money was deposited, what paperwork filed with the government and banks was inaccurate, and how he benefited from providing false information.
Witnesses testified about campaign work they did with Manafort for Ukrainian interests, offering a window into a world of international political consulting where domestic partisan lines often blurred. Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who played a key role in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, told jurors of producing hundreds of ads for Ukrainian campaigns with Manafort between 2005 and 2010.
The defense opted not to present any witnesses, arguing prosecutors simply failed to meet the burden of proof and relying instead on their cross-examination of government witnesses to cast doubt on the case against Manafort.
“I thought [the defense] did what they could,” said Seth Waxman, a white-collar defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.
Although the charges against Manafort are unrelated to his work for President Trump, his involvement in the campaign did come up at times. The prosecution’s final witness testified about the CEO of Federal Savings Bank allegedly pushing through $16 million in loans to Manafort the bank knew were too risky. Around the same time, the CEO sent Manafort a list of “Perspective Rolls” he was seeking within the Trump administration, including several Cabinet secretary slots and ambassadorships.
Judge Ellis admonished prosecutors early in the trial for devoting too much time to Manafort’s lavish spending and extravagant lifestyle, but they maintained his over-the-top expenditures were evidence of his dubious financial dealings.
One witness testified Manafort spent nearly $1 million on suits at one Manhattan store between 2010 and 2014, paying with wire transfers from foreign accounts. Prosecutors also specifically flagged purchases of a $21,000 watch, multi-million-dollar homes, and a $15,000 ostrich coat.
“Paul Manafort placed himself and his money over the law," prosecutor Uzo Asonye told jurors.
Manafort’s shopping habits attracted media coverage and mockery, but whether it amounts to convincing evidence of criminality is an entirely different question.
“We won’t know the answer on that until the jury verdict, but the prosecution got it admitted in the trial, so that’s a win in and of itself,” said Jessica Gabel Cino, associate dean for academic affairs at George State University College of Law and a former white-collar defense attorney.
Despite being tangential to the activities Robert Mueller’s team is investigating, Manafort’s trial is the first to spring out of the probe. Other defendants in the U.S. who have been charged have all pleaded guilty, and about two dozen Russian intelligence officers under indictment are unlikely to ever face prosecution.
Critics have accused the special counsel’s office of pursuing a laundry list of charges that could easily put Manafort in prison for the rest of his life solely to pressure him to provide evidence against Trump in the investigation of Russian interference.
“They’re not going after Manafort for what he necessarily did,” Dershowitz said. “They’re going after him to squeeze him and to try to get him to sing, perhaps even compose, about President Trump. So, this case is all about President Trump, even though the jurors haven’t heard a word about President Trump.”
Others say how this piece fits into Mueller’s larger Russia probe puzzle has no bearing on the validity of the charges against Manafort.
“I 100 percent agree this is in large part to do with flipping Paul Manafort,” Waxman said. “That is not to say that the pending matters in Virginia and Washington, D.C. aren’t righteous prosecutions separate and apart from the government’s desire to flip Manafort... Such a motive does not delegitimize an investigation or indictment. But it would be naïve to think that the prosecutor’s desire to flip Manafort did not play a substantial role in their efforts to investigate Manafort’s background and history.”
Whether a Northern Virginia jury finds it convincing or not, prosecutors offered a meticulous case with forensic accountants tracking byzantine business transactions through domestic and offshore accounts dating back years.
“I don’t think the trial was all smoke and mirrors just to get Manafort to talk,” Cino said. “I do think, however, it’s meant to send a message that the DOJ/FBI will prosecute cases like this.”
Jurors were provided with vastly different pictures of former Trump campaign aide and Manafort business partner Rick Gates. Both sides agree that he filed much of the fraudulent paperwork underpinning the charges, with prosecutors presenting Gates as doing all of this at Manafort’s direction and the defense placing blame entirely on him.
Gates readily acknowledged years of criminal activity for his benefit and Manafort’s, including falsifying tax returns and hiding foreign bank accounts from the government. He claimed Manafort told him to report wire transfers as loans to defer taxes and he admitted filing false information to obtain loans.
According to Waxman, the cross-examination of Gates largely hammered standard points defense teams hit when challenging a cooperating witness, with attorneys questioning why Gates changed his story, reminding jurors he is getting something in exchange for his testimony, and stressing his own misconduct.
“Nothing I don’t think the prosecution was prepared for,” Waxman said.
While Gates’ testimony pointing a finger firmly at Manafort and defense efforts to discredit him were expected, some of the revelations elicited during his time on the witness stand were surprising. Among other things, Gates admitted to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Manafort and to cheating on his wife.
Gates said he told Manafort about an affair with a woman in London and Manafort was supportive of him. The defense suggested there were several other affairs, but Judge Ellis curtailed that questioning with Gates only vaguely confirming he had a “secret life” while he was embezzling from Manafort.
“Rick Gates was probably the best the prosecution could offer and he certainly had damning things to say,” Cino said. “At the same time, he’s a double-edged sword because he has serious credibility issues.”
During the three weeks the trial has been in progress, President Trump has continued his drumbeat of attacks on the special counsel’s office. That pushback culminated Friday with Trump publicly declaring Manafort a “good person” and calling the trial “very sad” hours before jurors were dismissed for the weekend.
“It’s very unusual what the president is doing, especially in a case that has connections to him personally,” Waxman said.
Trump has denounced Mueller’s investigation as a “Rigged Witch Hunt” almost daily, and he has compared Manafort to notorious gangster Al Capone. In theory, jurors would not see or hear any of this since they were admonished to avoid media coverage of the case, but in practice, things the president says can be hard to miss.
“As a prosecutor, yes, I would be somewhat worried, if a juror was not to follow the judge’s instructions, that some juror may marginally or greater than marginally be influenced,” Waxman said.
With Trump not ruling out an eventual pardon for Manafort, his disdain for the special counsel hangs over any proceedings in the case. In most administrations, it would be unusual for a president to publicly question the validity of his own Justice Department’s case in the middle of a trial, but Trump has made clear this is a hurdle prosecutors will have to overcome.
Trump’s commentary presents a particularly extreme example of a problem judges and attorneys face in any high-profile case. In an increasingly media-connected world, how realistic is it to expect jurors to avoid all coverage of the case for three weeks? Ultimately, all they can really do is trust the jury they selected will follow the rules.
“I think you have to really handle this upfront on jury selection and try to gauge how much social media and other news plays a role in the life of a prospective juror,” Cino said. “If it’s someone who spends hours a day on it, I wouldn’t put him/her on the jury in the first place.”
Regardless of the outcome in Alexandria, Manafort’s legal troubles are far from over. He is scheduled to face trial on additional charges in the District of Columbia next month, and prosecutors have indicated they have more than 1,000 pieces of evidence to present there.
In D.C., Manafort is charged with seven counts connected to his work in Ukraine, including failure to register as a foreign agent, conspiracy charges, and making false statements. Prosecutors will likely present a similar case there, with Gates again as the pivotal witness, but the trial strategy on both sides will be driven in part by who wins in Virginia.
“Apparently, they have three times the volume of evidence, so that’s going to be different from the get-go. It’ll be a longer trial for sure, but it’s hard to know any changes or pivots the defense or prosecution might make until this verdict is final,” Cino said.
One aspect Waxman suggested might be different is jury selection, which was handled in about four hours in the Virginia trial. If there is a hung jury or a holdout, it could be because prospective jurors were not scrutinized enough for possible biases.
“A juror may have slipped through the cracks,” he said.
A different jury pool and a different judge could greatly impact the proceedings. Judge Ellis has at times displayed hostility toward the prosecution, but Dershowitz noted Judge Amy Berman Jackson in D.C. has taken a harder line against the defense, including revoking Manafort’s bail for alleged witness tampering.
“In Virginia, there is a jury that is composed of a more diverse array of Republicans and Democrats,” Dershowitz said. “In the District of Columbia, it will probably be predominantly Democrats and a judge who has already revoked his bail. So, I think he’s going to have a harder time in D.C. than he did with a somewhat more sympathetic judge in Virginia.”