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Prosecutors In Manafort Fraud Trial Called Nearly A Dozen Witnesses


Prosecutors in the fraud trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort could rest their case today. It has all happened rather quickly. Prosecutors have called nearly two dozen witnesses in less than two weeks. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been in that courtroom in Alexandria, Va., every day of this trial. She will be back there again today. She joins us now. Hey, Carrie.


MARTIN: All right, before we talk about what's going to happen today in moving forward, let's remind everyone what has already transpired. Prosecutors have the burden of proof for these 18 bank and tax fraud charges. How did they go about presenting their case?

JOHNSON: Well, trials are like stories. But the only audience here is the six men and the six women on this jury. The government structured this case to tell a story about Paul Manafort. He's a famous political strategist who earned tens of millions of dollars. The government called political consultants who worked with Manafort in Ukraine. That explained how he earned his money. They called luxury menswear designers, a man for Mercedes-Benz, home improvement and landscaping guys. That was all about how Manafort spent his money. Then the government called accountants and bookkeepers and bankers to try and demonstrate that Manafort hid millions of dollars in income, in places like Cyprus, and that he never reported that income on his taxes.

MARTIN: So one name I did not hear in there was the name of Rick Gates, who was basically the star witness in the prosecution's case, right?

JOHNSON: The star witness and the heart of Manafort's defense - Rick Gates has a lot of credibility problems. He admitted to lying for Paul Manafort. But he also admitted lying to Paul Manafort. He endured a brutal cross-examination, admitted to embezzling money, said he had an extramarital affair. But Gates says, unlike Paul Manafort, he's trying to change and do the right thing. It's not clear the jury bought what Rick Gate's was selling on the witness stand.

MARTIN: Right. So if Manafort's defense is that Gates is actually the criminal, the one who did wrong, where does that leave the government?

JOHNSON: Well, to hear the prosecution tell it, this is not a case about just one witness. This jury could find Paul Manafort guilty even if they don't believe Rick Gates. Prosecutors brought in a lot of evidence, documents and emails, that tied Manafort himself to his money. He personally signed checks - signed for bank loans that may have been fraudulently obtained. He directed his lawyer's office in Cyprus to transfer money out of what he called my offshore accounts in email messages. And his bookkeeper testified that Manafort approved every penny of every expense. We even heard that Manafort directed his son-in-law, via email, to pretend he was living in a New York property rather than renting it out. That mattered because it was not disclosed on loan applications to the banks.

MARTIN: So many documents in this case - all right, so that's what has happened. Let's look forward to what will happen, specifically when the prosecution rests its case.

JOHNSON: Well, it's not clear how many witnesses this defense team will present. It's unlikely Paul Manafort himself will testify. Of course, he's facing another trial in Washington, D.C., in September. His defense may make the calculation that they've created enough doubt among this jury that they'll just stop here because prosecutors bear the burden of proof. In any event, the judge will need to give the jury instructions on how to proceed. And each side eventually will get time for closing arguments to try to clinch their case.

MARTIN: So one other thing, Carrie - the judge in this case has become part of the story here, of his own doing to some degree. What can you tell us about that?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Judge T.S. Ellis said, from the bench earlier this week, he needs to work on his patience. He's been really rough on prosecutors and pushing them to operate at breakneck speed. Prosecutors said the judge has also been out of line in some cases. They filed a motion this week asking the judge to tell the jury that he was wrong. He reamed out the government team in front of the jury this week for allowing an expert witness to listen and watch the whole trial even though prosecutors had gotten the judge's permission to do that on the first day of this case.

Even so, the judge couldn't quite bring himself to fully apologize. He told the jury he could have been wrong in his criticism of the government. It didn't matter anyway. He said, this robe doesn't make me any more than human. But it's very odd for a judge to be criticizing prosecutors like this, especially since this team of government lawyers is among the most seasoned in the country. One of them used to prosecute mob families and had senior roles at the Justice Department under President Obama. This lawyer, Greg Andres, also happens to be married to a federal judge - so not exactly somebody who's outside the system.

MARTIN: Also the risk is that it affects how the jury thinks about the prosecution.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and there's a real concern about that.

MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.