As former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort goes on trial Tuesday in a federal court in Virginia on charges of tax and bank fraud, the specter of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections – and any ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign – won’t be the main issue on the docket, but it will certainly be in the background as the trial gets underway.
Manafort faces a variety of charges – subscribing to false individual income tax returns, failure to report foreign bank and financial accounts, bank fraud and bank fraud conspiracy.
In all, Manafort faces 18 federal criminal charges, as he will be the first to go through a trial involving the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
What’s at stake, and what might we see in the weeks ahead?
1. This trial is not about the Russia probe – but it is. While Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office is in charge of this prosecution, the charges of tax and bank fraud levied against the former Trump Campaign Manager have nothing to do with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. But the specter of the overall Mueller probe certainly is the elephant in the courtroom, as the judge has made clear in previous hearings on the case. “You really don’t care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” Federal Judge T.S. Ellis said back in May to lawyers for the Special Counsel’s office. “You really care about getting information Mr. Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump and lead to his prosecution or impeachment. That’s what you’re really interested in,” the judge added. While backers of the President hailed that talk in May, the judge refused to set aside the prosecution, allowing the trial to go forward.
2. What is the trial of Manafort actually about? Before working on the Trump Campaign, Manafort was an adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, who was the President of Ukraine between 2010 and 2014, a leader who was more friendly to Moscow and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The case against Manafort centers on whether Manafort was paid millions of dollars for his work on behalf of Yanukovych, then failed to report that income to the IRS, employing a variety of ways to launder the money for his own personal use in the U.S., mainly by disguising it through transactions with shell companies. “As explained at the hearing, the government expects to prove that Manafort earned for than $60 million dollars from his Ukraine work…and failed to report a significant percentage of it on his tax returns,” the feds argued. The second part of the charges center around whether Manafort lied to U.S. banks about his personal debts, as he applied for very large loans. One of the loans – for $16 billion – came from an Illinois bank run by an economic adviser to the Trump Campaign, and who reportedly was interested in a post in the Trump Administration, raising questions of a quid-pro-quo. Two people who work for that bank were given limited ‘use immunity’ to testify in the case against Manafort. None of the five are household names – some more conservative news outlets had said that Tony Podesta, the brother of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, would be granted immunity for his testimony. That did not happen in this case.
3. This trial is not the venue for testimony on the Russia probe. Federal prosecutors have already made clear that they do not intend to use this first trial against Manafort (there two already scheduled – the next in September in Washington, D.C.) to start making the case about possible ties between Russia and the Trump Campaign. “The government does not intend to present at trial evidence or argument concerning collusion with the Russian government,” the Special Counsel’s office stated in court papers filed in recent weeks. But as stated above, part of the prosecution of Manafort will show his ties to pro-Putin groups, and one of the star witnesses will be his former top aide, Rick Gates, who has already cut a plea bargain with Mueller to provide testimony in the Russia investigation. While the feds say they aren’t going to bring up the issue of Manafort and Russia, one can’t rule out the possibility that little pieces of evidence get dropped along the way in this trial related to that issue.
4. Trump has said little about Manafort trial. While President Trump has routinely attacked the Russia investigation, and the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the President has rarely addressed the legal fate of his former campaign manager, downplaying Manafort’s importance to Mr. Trump’s bid for the White House. “Paul Manafort came into the campaign very late and was with us for a short period of time,” the President tweeted in June. As for the charges of financial wrongdoing – “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” the President tweeted in October of 2017, as he then segued into a familiar argument. “But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?” Certainly the outcome of this case – while not focused on the issue of the Russia investigation – could have a major impact on where that probe goes. An acquittal for Manafort would be a major boost for critics of Mueller, especially President Trump.
5. Manafort’s legal problems don’t end with just this trial. This is not the only trial set for Manafort, as a second case against him in a Washington, D.C. federal court deals with money laundering, and not registering as a foreign lobbyist, for his Ukraine work. That trial is not set to begin until September. The big question about Manafort is fairly simple – would he ‘flip’ and offer testimony against the President if found guilty in this first trial? Manafort was involved in some key moments which have come under scrutiny in the Mueller investigation, like the infamous June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Russian emissaries were supposedly ready to offer ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton. It is not clear what other evidence has been generated by the Mueller investigation with regards to Manafort. It could be there is nothing of note. Or, it could be that there is more. But those questions are for another day – and not for this trial.