Former Trump campaign chief goes on trial for bank and tax fraud

Donald Trump’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort on Tuesday becomes the first member of the president’s election team to face trial on charges stemming from the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 vote.

Manafort, 69, has pleaded not guilty to 18 counts of bank and tax fraud related to his lobbying activities on behalf of the former Russian-backed government of Ukraine.

The indictment was brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is looking into Russian meddling in the presidential election, but the charges are not connected to Manafort’s time as Trump’s campaign chairman.

Selection of a 12-member jury for “USA vs Manafort” begins at 10:00 am (1400 GMT) on Tuesday before US District Court Judge T.S. Ellis in Alexandria, Virginia. The trial is expected to last about three weeks.

Manafort, a veteran Republican political consultant, served as chairman of Trump’s presidential election campaign for three months in 2016 before being forced to step down amid questions about his lobbying work in Ukraine.

He is charged with five counts of filing false tax returns for not reporting bank accounts he held in Cyprus and other countries in a bid to hide millions of dollars in income from activities on behalf of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort is charged with failing to report the existence of foreign bank accounts to the Internal Revenue Service and bank fraud related to several multi-million-dollar loans he obtained from various banks.

Prosecutors plan to produce nearly three dozen witnesses during the trial, including Manafort’s former associate Richard Gates, who is cooperating with the government after pleading guilty to lesser charges in February.

Five witnesses have been granted immunity from prosecution to testify against Manafort.

Mueller has indicted a total of 32 people so far in connection with his probe into whether any members of Trump’s election campaign colluded with Russia to help get the New York real estate tycoon into the White House.

Trump has repeatedly denounced the special counsel’s investigation as a politically motivated “witch hunt” and denied there was any collusion with Moscow to defeat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

While Gates and others, including former national security advisor Michael Flynn, have pleaded guilty, Manafort has refused to strike a deal and has insisted on having his day in court.

Hoping for a pardon?

Legal experts said Manafort may be hoping to be found not guilty — or holding out hopes of a presidential pardon.

Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, said the odds are stacked heavily against the former heavyweight political operative.

“This is an exceptionally difficult case for the defense,” Turley told AFP. “To quote gamblers in Las Vegas, he has to run the table.

“Mueller only has to secure one conviction on one count to put Manafort away for as much as a decade,” he said. “At 69, that must weigh heavily on his mind.”

Turley also said he believes “jurors are not likely to identify or empathize with Paul Manafort,” whose lavish spending and lifestyle is outlined in court documents.

“They’re going to be seeing a guy who spent half a million dollars just on landscaping,” Turley said.

“On top of that,” he added, “the government will bring forth the coup de grace” with incriminating testimony by Gates, Manafort’s former business partner.

Turley said Manafort may be “playing a pardon strategy.”

“Manafort has remained loyal,” he said. “He may feel that he doesn’t have much to lose in going to trial and preserving his chances for a pardon.

“If he cooperates with Mueller, a pardon is going to be substantially reduced in likelihood,” he said.

Manafort has spent the past month in prison in Alexandria outside Washington after having his house arrest and $10 million bail revoked by a federal judge for allegedly tampering with witnesses in another pending case.

He is scheduled to go on trial in the US capital in September on separate charges brought by Mueller of conspiracy, money laundering and failing to register as an agent of a foreign government.

Trump reacted to Manafort’s jailing in June by describing it as “very unfair.”

“Wow, what a tough sentence for Paul Manafort, who has represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other top political people and campaigns,” Trump tweeted on June 15. “Didn’t know Manafort was the head of the Mob.”

© Agence France-Presse

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Chris Lefkow
Chris Lefkow is an AFP correspondent based in Washington.
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