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High-profile case: Paul Manafort’s federal trial is a critical step by special prosecutor looking at 2016 election mischief

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A federal trial with wide interest, including at the White House, is under way in Alexandria, Va. The accused defendant is Paul Manafort, who was Donald Trump's campaign chairman for five months in 2016. He's charged with tax fraud, bank fraud and other financial crimes. (A second trial will be held in Washington, D.C., on charges linked to his work in Ukraine. Those counts include conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, obstruction of justice and failure to register as a foreign agent.)

Both cases are brought by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, who's overseeing an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The trial, which began last week, is expected to run through next week before it goes to a jury of six women and six men. Manafort, 69, is the only American charged by Mueller's team so far to choose a trial. Four others pleaded guilty, including Michael T. Flynn, a campaign adviser who became the president’s top national security aide until Trump fired him after a few weeks in January 2017. Flynn, not yet sentenced, admits lying to the FBI (a felony) about contacts with Russia’s government during Trump's presidential transition.

Manafort and a business partner, Richard Gates, ran a high-priced lobbying and political consulting firm that advised government officials in the Ukraine and other countries. Mueller says Manafort made more than $60 million consulting for pro-Russia politicians and parties in Ukraine. To avoid taxes, he allegedly deposited the money illegally in foreign banks. Gates, who’ll testify against Manafort, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the government. In exchange for that cooperation, other charges against him are dropped. Gates had been deputy presidential campaign manager and later helped plan the president's inauguration.

At a pretrial hearing, Judge T.S. Ellis raised the reason this is much more than a dry financial cheating case. The federal judge believes Mueller's team is trying to "tighten the screws" on Manafort to pressure him to testify against others, including Trump. "I don't see what relation this indictment has with what the special counsel is authorized to investigate," Ellis said in May. "You really don't care about Mr. Manafort's bank fraud. . . . What you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment." And that, right there, is why journalists pack the courtroom each day.

Prosecutor says: "Paul Manafort lied. The evidence will show that Paul Manafort placed himself and his money over the law." – Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye in opening statement at trial

Judge says: "Even though I've said what I think the [special counsel's] motive is, that doesn’t mean it's admissible at trial" by defense lawyers. – Federal Judge T.S. Ellis

Columnist says: "It will be interesting to see whether we learn anything during the trial about the apparent collusion between Russia and the campaign." – David Leonhart, The New York Times

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for, Copyright 2019
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