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The First Week Of The Manafort Trial


The trial of Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, is underway. Manafort faces bank and tax fraud charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life. This week, prosecutors presented evidence of his taste for luxury, including a $15,000 ostrich coat. NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson's been covering the case. Carrie, thanks so much for joining us in the studio.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And, of course, we need to remind ourselves the special counsel brought this case, but it's Paul Manafort on trial, not Donald Trump. This case might wind up having nothing to do with Russian intervention, but they're serious charges. What are the accusations?

JOHNSON: Paul Manafort's charged with crimes based on his personal finances, not any work he did for candidate Donald Trump. Prosecutors say Manafort hid millions of dollars - tens of millions in income from foreign lobbying and that he used that money to buy real estate, custom suits, that ostrich jacket and landscaping with hundreds of flowers that spelled out the letter M.

Then, when his lobbying work in Ukraine dried up, the government says Manafort got desperate. His bookkeeper testified. She sent urgent emails; he needed to pay his bills or a medical insurance policy would lapse. And on Friday, we heard from an accountant who testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution. She said she could've been charged with perjury. That's because she says she went along with a scheme to doctor Manafort's tax records and save him a half-million dollars.

Left unanswered so far, Scott, is why Manafort joined the Trump campaign in 2016 for no money when he was bleeding. He was bleeding money and got no salary from that Trump campaign.

SIMON: Of course, Mr. Manafort says he's not guilty. What seems to be the arc of his defense right now?

JOHNSON: The heart of the defense is that his lawyers are going to blame Manafort's former right-hand man Rick Gates. They say Manafort traveled a lot, left the details to Rick Gates. And they accuse Gates of embezzling and having his hand in the cookie jar. But when they both were charged with crimes, Manafort and Gates, Gates pleaded guilty and agreed to flip on Paul Manafort.

There is a complication, though. Manafort's bookkeeper says he approved - he, Manafort, approved every penny of every expense. And his accountant says she often dealt with Manafort directly, and he signed those bad tax forms.

SIMON: What's it like inside the courtroom?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Manafort's very involved in his defense. He's taking notes and consulting with his attorneys. And the judge in this case, T.S. Ellis III, he's been on the bench 31 years. He said yesterday he acts like he's a Caesar in his own Rome. In other words, he's large and in charge. He's been hurrying both sides to finish quickly.

As for the jury - six men, six women and four alternates - they are bonding. They asked to bring a birthday cake in on Friday for one of their birthdays. And, Scott, they also get a free lunch, which is incentive to come back next week.

SIMON: Yeah. Trial's moving along, isn't it?

JOHNSON: It's moving really quickly. It was scheduled to last three weeks, but it's going to finish sooner than that. This coming week, we expect to hear from some more accountants and, of course, Rick Gates. His testimony's going to be a high point, and partly because this cross-examination of Rick Gates may be the defense's one big chance to create a reasonable doubt in the minds of these jurors.

For the past couple of days, prosecutors have been steamrolling through accounting and tax evidence. They're introducing document after document about Manafort's financial troubles and what he knew about them when he was applying for those loans they allege were phony. The evidence has been building. The jury's paying close attention. And things are looking kind of bad for Paul Manafort.

SIMON: If he is convicted, does the special counsel have any leverage left to try and get Manafort to cooperate?

JOHNSON: There is still a chance Paul Manafort could decide to cooperate. Remember, he faces a separate trial in September in Washington D.C. And these are tax and bank fraud offenses he's charged with. There are other family members who benefited from some of this, including his wife, who signed joint tax returns. She has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Neither have either of his daughters, at least one of whom was involved in some of the bank loans.

SIMON: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.