Manafort prosecutors to witnesses: Don't say the T-word

The most anticipated trial in the Donald Trump-Russiagate saga begins today, but jurors won’t hear Trump’s name — at least not from prosecutors. Concerned over the potential for a mistrial ruling or a reversal after conviction, Robert Mueller’s team has coached witnesses to ixnay on the Ump-tray. It’s a curious beginning to an indictment hailed by Trump critics as proof of collusion:

Prosecutors preparing witnesses for the upcoming trial of President Donald Trump’s one-time campaign chairman Paul J. Manafort are advising them to avoid mentioning Trump’s name, ABC News has learned.

The case against Manafort, brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the Eastern District of Virginia, is focused solely on allegations that the former Trump adviser had committed a range of financial crimes, from tax evasion to bank fraud, that have no direct tie to his campaign work. Manafort has pleaded not guilty.

The guidance to witnesses comes in response to an order from United States District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who agreed with Manafort’s defense team that invoking the defendant’s ties to the Trump campaign could unduly influence jurors. The panel will be picked from residents of the Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia suburbs, which voted heavily against Trump in 2016. Jury selection is scheduled to start Tuesday.

This is actually the first of two trials Manafort faces. This trial deals with the bank and tax fraud allegations, while the next trial will consider his work in Ukraine and his failure to register as a foreign agent. That has already come up as a point of argument with Ellis, as Manafort’s team wants no mention of Ukraine either:

Prosecutors allege Manafort failed to pay taxes on millions he made working for a Russia-backed political party in Ukraine, then lied to get loans when the cash stopped coming in.

Before the jury pool arrives, Ellis will decide how much evidence will be allowed at trial detailing Manafort’s work in Ukraine between 2005 and 2014.

Manafort has argued the actual work he did is irrelevant. Such evidence, his attorneys say, will be more properly heard when he goes on trial in the District on related charges that include failing to register as a foreign agent. The D.C. trial is set to begin in September.

If Mueller’s team wants no mention of Russia for the North Virginia suburbs, one has to assume that the same will hold for the trial in DC, too. After all, the same issues hold in that case, which is that the trial relates to actions taken by Manafort well before he ever took part in the Trump presidential campaign. Except for a couple of counts of obstruction, almost all of the charges against Manafort relate to his activities before Trump’s campaign launched in 2015, for that matter.

In both trials, Mueller’s star witness will be Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner in Ukraine and in the various real-estate and loan transactions at issue. Gates pled out and awaits sentencing, which will presumably take place after he gets done testifying in both trials against Manafort. Like Manafort, Gates spent time with the Trump campaign — a bit longer than Manafort, actually — but also like Manafort, never faced any charges related to the campaign. And also like Manafort, Mueller’s team apparently didn’t enough from Gates to go after Trump, at least not from what’s been made public.

This case is the more interesting of the two, thanks in large part to Judge Ellis. At one point Ellis threatened to derail this case, accusing Mueller of using the trial to flip Manafort against Trump. Only after reading the classified mandate Mueller received from the Department of Justice did Ellis relent, but he’s likely to be sensitive during the trial to any stretching or innovation from prosecutors. That’s one reason why Mueller’s team is sensitive about the T-word.

The other reason, of course, is that Trump’s not only not on trial, there doesn’t seem to be any action coming at all from Mueller. They obviously hoped to flip Manafort and get him to provide them with enough to take some action, but so far Manafort either won’t flip or doesn’t have anything to give Mueller. Today might be a critical day in the story, because jury selection sometimes is the last-chance stage for a deal with prosecutors. If Manafort wants a deal, he’ll have to come up with something Mueller needs, or spend the better part of the next decade at Chez Graybar. If this goes to trial, it’s because Manafort didn’t have anything to trade.

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David Strom 6:31 PM on October 05, 2022