Paul Manafort’s fate — and possibly the future of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — is now in the hands of 12 men and women from Northern Virginia.
The jury Thursday morning began deliberating the 18 counts of tax evasion, bank fraud and hiding foreign bank accounts facing Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
For the first time, jurors will see pictures of the $15,000 ostrich jacket, $18,000 python jacket, and other high-end clothes Manafort purchased using foreign wire transfers. They will also debate the testimony of Rick Gates, Manafort’s former deputy who admitted to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars. And they can pore over reams of emails, tax forms and financial documents that prosecutors say are the “star witness” in their case.
But the courtroom drama will be nothing compared to the political earthquake the verdict will bring, regardless of which way it comes down.
The President has repeatedly called Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt” that hasn’t found evidence of Russian collusion with his campaign, and Trump’s allies in and out of the White House say the special counsel should wrap things up.
“If he doesn’t get it done in the next two or three weeks we will just unload on him like a ton of bricks,” Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told Bloomberg News.
“Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and “Public Enemy Number One,” or Paul Manafort, political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement – although convicted of nothing? Where is the Russian Collusion?” Trump tweeted earlier this month about Manafort.
An acquittal would only add to criticism that Mueller’s investigation hasn’t been worth the time and expense.
A conviction, meanwhile, would allow Democrats and Mueller’s supporters to say ending the investigation would be premature given the special counsel’s results, having previously collected several guilty pleas.
It could also boost Mueller’s position as he negotiates with Trump’s lawyers over a potential interview.
‘This is a case about lies’
The trial has not touched on Russia or the 2016 election. Instead, the focus has been entirely on Manafort’s finances.
Prosecutors say that Manafort collected $65 million in his foreign accounts from 2010-2014 and spent more than $15 million on luxury purchases in the same time period, including high-end clothing, real estate purchases, landscaping and other big-ticket items.
They also alleged that Manafort lied to banks to take out more than $20 million in loans after his Ukrainian political work dried up in 2015 and accused him of hiding foreign bank accounts from federal authorities. Manafort also was charged with receiving loans from the Federal Savings Bank after one of its executives sought a position in the Trump campaign and the administration, according to prosecutors.
“Mr. Manafort lied to keep more money when he had it, and he lied to get more money when he didn’t,” prosecutor Greg Andres said told jurors during closing arguments. “This is a case about lies.”
Defense attorney Richard Westling said Manafort became the special counsel’s victim in a “selective process of pulling” his financial records to concoct a narrative of an “elaborate fraud scheme.” (Judge T.S. Ellis, who has been a colorful, and at-times controversial, presence during the trial, later instructed the jury not to consider such characterizations of Mueller’s team’s motives.)
Manafort defense attorney Kevin Downing told reporters that his client was “very happy” with how closing arguments went. “His defense team got to address the jury, point out the shortcomings in the government’s case and explain that the government has not met their burden of proof,” Downing said.
Manafort faces up to 305 years in prison if convicted on all charges.