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As Rick Gates details Manafort’s alleged financial crimes, defense tries to erode his credibility

Rick Gates, the key witness in the trial of President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, took the stand again Tuesday to face tough questions from Manafort’s legal team. As Gates offered detailed testimony about Manafort's alleged financial crimes, the defense sought to portray him as an unreliable witness. William Brangham learns more from former federal prosecutor Seth B. Waxman.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    The key witness in the trial of President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort took the stand again today and faced tough questions from Manafort's legal team.

    "NewsHour"'s William Brangham was in court today and has that.

  • William Brangham:

    That star witness was Rick Gates, a longtime associate of Paul Manafort's who also worked on the Trump campaign. Gates is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller's team.

    And yesterday and today, he offered detailed testimony about Manafort's alleged financial crimes, which involved hiding foreign income and bank fraud.

    The defense today sought to portray Gates as an unreliable witness, highlighting how he too allegedly hid income, lied to prosecutors and even carried on a secret extramarital affair.

    I'm joined now by Seth B. Waxman. He's currently a criminal defense lawyer in private practice, but previously worked as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    So, Rick Gates testified yesterday and again today, laying out really the arc of the prosecution's case, all these alleged financial crimes that Paul Manafort allegedly carried out, bank fraud, hiding income, trying to avoid paying taxes.

    Thus far, last week and this week, what do you make of the prosecution's case?

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    Yes, I mean, it seems pretty solid at this point.

    You have several witnesses who have all said that this activity went on, from accountants and other experts in those sort of areas. Now you have the star witness, Mr. Gates, coming on, and kind of breathing life into the various documents and e-mails that we're seeing.

    And so you have to think, at this point, the prosecution feels pretty good about where they sit. And, of course, we're now into cross-examination of Rick Gates, where it's really the defense's opportunity to kind of set this case more in their favor. And it's really a critical time period for them.

  • William Brangham:

    Rick Gates, as was laid out in testimony yesterday and today, he admitted to prosecutors that he was part of Manafort's scheme, and said, I helped him do these things. Manafort was breaking the law, but so was I.

    And he became what we call a cooperating witness.

    That's a common strategy, right?

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    It most certainly is.

    In most conspiracies, you're going to have someone on the inside of that conspiracy to tell the story. And, oftentimes, those are not the pope or Mother Teresa. You're going to have criminals, liars, cheaters, murderers, whatever the crime may be. So those people are going to have baggage.

    And that's what the prosecution does. They front all the bad stuff, so they don't hear about it, the jury does hear about it for the first time from the defense. And the whole case from the prosecution side is corroborating that star witness, to say, look, you don't have to just believe him for the words he says. You get to believe him because all of this other independent evidence corroborates and tells you what he says is the truth.

  • William Brangham:

    Given what you described as the strong case the prosecution seems to have — and, to my non-legal mind, it does seem like they have got a good deal of documentary evidence about Manafort being involved in these alleged crimes — what is your sense of why Paul Manafort didn't plead guilty?

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    Yes, I mean, it's my opinion that he's kind of playing with house money right now, that he can take a shot at this trial, even if the evidence is overwhelming.

    If he should happen to win, he would go on to D.C. in the fall and fight that case. And if he would win…

  • William Brangham:

    That's a separate prosecution that's going on against Manafort.

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    Correct. Correct. There's still yet another trial separate from this.

    And if he were to win that one, he's a free man. But on the other hand, if he were to lose one or either of those trials, it's my belief that he can still walk into Manafort's office, ask for a deal, they will give him that deal, because they need him that back to kind of be one of the top lieutenants in this potential conspiracy among the Russians and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 election.

    So I think he's rolling the dice. If he wins, great. If he loses, he can still get that deal. It might not be as good, but he can still get a deal.

  • William Brangham:

    So, as we said before, the defense got their first crack at Rick Gates, and they immediately tried to undercut him and to say, you're a liar, you're untrustworthy.

    They even made the revelation, which the prosecution had not let slip, about this extramarital affair. What is your sense of how the defense is doing thus far in chipping away at the star witness?

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    Yes, I mean, these are pretty common attacks.

    They're going to go after his credibility, character assassination, anything to move the jury away from Rick Gates and closer to Paul Manafort and believing the presumption that he's presumed innocent.

    How much hay they're making out of that, it's kind of hard to say at this point. But the difficulty for the — for the pro — the defense, rather, in this case is the collaboration. They have got these other witnesses.

    I'm hearing that there are e-mails today that are from Paul Manafort to Rick Gates, or vice versa, where Paul Manafort is directing Rick Gates to do certain things. I mean, that is devastating evidence for — against the defense.

    And it's those kinds of uncontroverted documents — documents can't be cross-examined — that the prosecution will be hammering all the way through closing arguments in this case.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you expect Paul Manafort to take the stand? If you were representing Paul Manafort, would you encourage him to do so?

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    No. No, I don't think so.

    I mean, the risks of him taking the stand are really, really high. It's a rare case where a criminal defendant or person on trial, rather, will take the stand in his defense.

    I mean, I think the play here is to attack Rick Gates, make it seem like a he said/he said. And, of course, the government bears the burden of proof. And, again, it's going to — the prosecution saying, look, wait a minute, Rick Gates is an important witness, but there's a lot more. There's corroboration. So I think that's the dynamic.

  • William Brangham:

    Remind us again. This case came out of Robert Mueller's investigation, which, as we all know, his primary charge being look at how Russia meddled in our election and whether or not the Trump campaign colluded in that at all.

    Remind us again how we got to a financial crimes prosecution.

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    Sure.

    As a prosecutor is doing their investigation, they may learn background about individuals and dig into that background. So, of course, the Mueller team has uncovered all of what we're seeing now in Alexandria.

    Why that's relevant, I think it has two points. One, conspiracies don't just drop out of the sky in March 2016. There's a backstory there. Why did the Russians think that they could reach out to Manafort or others? It's because maybe they had 10 years of history of engaging in wrongful conduct. So that may be a gateway or entrance into the telling that story of how the conspiracy came about, assuming it occurred, in the election.

    The other part of this is, I think this trial has everything to do about Russia, not the facts for the trial itself, but that this is an effort by the prosecution to get Manafort to flip. And for the reasons we discussed before, I think that is still an option the table even after conviction.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, Judge T.S. Ellis, who has been presiding over this case, has been a really interesting figure to watch over the course of the days.

    He's inserted himself very aggressively. At one point, he — he's banned the use of the term oligarch, because he argues it's a pejorative term that's just used to slime these Ukrainian businessmen.

    But there's also times where the judge has really seemed to try to poke at the prosecution and sort of take them to task, sometimes in front of the jury. Does that happen often? And what is the impact of that kind of interjection?

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    Yes, I mean, it does happen, depending on the demeanor of the judge and how active or proactive they want to be.

    Judge Ellis is clearly very active. Some people think judges are referees, they should call balls and strikes and let the players play. I kind of fall in that camp. But I'm not a judge. The judges, the man in the black robe, or woman, it is her or his realm. And he gets to do or she gets to do what they want.

    Where it could become problematic for a prosecutor is if the judge is kind of launching personal attacks — some of these seem to kind of get close to that — or really just lashing out at the prosecutor.

    Jurors — and, frankly, sometimes even myself — don't really appreciate why the judge is so upset. And if that turns into a feeling in the jurors that the prosecution isn't playing fair, I mean, if a jury gets that feeling, that's where a case can go really south.

    So if the judge is kind of stepping into those grounds and kind of giving that impression, that's unfair, and there should be a balanced trial to both the government and the defense. So, you hope it doesn't kind of leave that impression that the government's playing unfair or under the table, because that's when it can be a real problem for the government.

  • William Brangham:

    Thanks for analysis, Seth Waxman.

  • Seth B. Waxman:

    Thank you for having me.

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