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What we learned from Paul Manafort trial opening statements

Paul Manafort, the first defendant charged by special counsel Robert Mueller to go to trial, is accused of working as an unregistered lobbyist for several pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. William Brangham joins John Yang from the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, to explain the contours of the case so far.

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  • John Yang:

    The bank and tax fraud trial of President Trump's one-time campaign chairman got off to a quick start in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, today.

    William Brangham was in the courtroom.

  • William Brangham:

    Paul Manafort is the first of the defendants charged by special counsel Robert Mueller to go to trial.

    While Mueller's investigation focuses mostly on Russia's attempts to meddle in the presidential election, and whether the Trump campaign colluded in that effort, this trial against Manafort will largely focus on alleged financial crimes that happened before the election.

    Manafort is accused of working as an unregistered lobbyist for several pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, people like former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Prosecutors allege Manafort laundered the income from that work, some $30 million, using shell companies and offshore bank accounts in Cyprus, the Seychelles, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines to hide the fact that he was bringing that money into the U.S. to fund his own lavish lifestyle.

    And when that income stream slowed, prosecutors allege that Manafort lied to banks to get access to millions of dollars more in loans. He's up against five counts of filing false tax returns, four counts of not reporting foreign financial accounts, four counts of bank fraud, and five counts of conspiracy to commit bank fraud.

    Manafort has pled not guilty, and his lawyers have argued previously that these charges have no obvious connection to the matter at the heart of Mueller's investigation. Still, the judge has let this case go forward, and, on these charges alone, Manafort could spend the rest of his life in prison, if convicted.

    When the Trump campaign brought Manafort on board in 2016, it was initially as convention manager. He was in charge of wrangling enough delegates so that candidate Trump could lock up the nomination. But several months later, Trump tapped him to lead the entire campaign, and at the convention, Manafort himself was emerging as a public face of Trump's candidacy.

  • Paul Manafort:

    We want Americans to understand who Donald Trump the man is, not just Donald Trump the candidate, the composite of his career.

  • William Brangham:

    Manafort left the campaign soon after, when The New York Times detailed a secret handwritten ledger which Ukrainian investigators said showed $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments to Manafort from Yanukovych's political party.

    Last October, he was indicted and arrested in Washington alongside Rick Gates, his longtime business partner and deputy on the Trump campaign. Earlier this year, Gates cut a deal with Mueller's team, pled guilty to a lesser set of charges, and agreed to cooperate with the special counsel's investigation. He's expected to be a key witness.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Paul Manafort worked for me for a very short period of time.

  • William Brangham:

    For his part, President Trump is now distancing himself from his former campaign chairman. But he still does defend him against Mueller's investigation, which the president has repeatedly called a witch-hunt.

    Originally, Paul Manafort was supposed to be under house arrest while this trial went on, but some evidence emerged that he had tried to tamper with some witnesses while he was under house arrest. And so a judge has ordered that he remain in jail throughout the remainder of this trial, which could be up to about three weeks — John.

  • John Yang:

    William, from the opening statements, what did we learn about the prosecution case and what the defense is going to present?

  • William Brangham:

    The prosecution's case is as laid out in the indictment. They're basically arguing that Manafort made tens of millions of dollars in Ukraine and he didn't want to pay taxes on it. And so we hid all that money. He stashed in an offshore bank accounts, he funneled it back to the U.S. secretly, not alerting tax authorities, and he funded a very lavish lifestyle.

    And one of the prosecutors today said that Paul Manafort put himself and his money above the law.

    And that's what they have argued all along. And they started to lay out that case today.

    The defense, in their opening statement, said that Paul Manafort didn't willfully lie to the IRS, he didn't try to hide this money. They seem to be putting all of the blame on Rick Gates. Rick Gates, as you remember, he was Paul Manafort's partner. He was also the deputy campaign manager of the Trump campaign.

    He worked a lot with Manafort over the years, and worked with him in Ukraine. And from the outset today, it seems that the prosecution is going to say Rick Gates is the one who set up these offshore accounts, Rick Gates was the money guy, Rick Gates was in control of all of this, Paul Manafort was too busy running a political campaign in Ukraine, and he couldn't be cared about the details that were going on back here.

    That seems to be the contours of the argument as they go forward.

  • John Yang:

    And we have already had our first witness, a prosecution witness, Tad Devine, who was Bernie Sanders' chief strategist in 2016. What is his connection to this case?

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    Tad Devine is one of these guys who has been a political consultant for 25 years in Washington. He's well known for making terrific TV ads, political ads for different campaigns. And Manafort, when he was hired in Ukraine to work for Viktor Yanukovych, asked Tad Devine to come over and to run ads and to write some speeches and to help do polling and try to help craft the on Yanukovych's message.

    And today, from what we got in the hour or so of examination, where the prosecution interrogated, Devine, they basically were trying to set up who was the boss, what kind of work you did, who controlled the money, what kind of work did you really do?

    So it wasn't totally clear exactly what we were getting from Devine's testimony, but just the brief contours of the kind of work that Manafort and Devine did in Ukraine.

  • John Yang:

    William, how does this case against Paul Manafort fit into the broader Mueller investigation?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, it's a question that a lot of people are asking, because today in the opening statements on both sides, Russia never came up, collusion never came up, the election never came up, President Trump never came up, candidate Trump never came up.

    As you remember, Mueller's mandate was to look at what role the Russians might have played in messing around with our presidential election and whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with that.

    Part of the mandate that Mueller had, though, was that, if he uncovered any crimes in the course of his investigation, that he could look into those as well. And that's where this case fits in.

    In that one moment earlier in proceedings, the judge ribbed the prosecutor and said, you don't really care about bank fraud or money laundering, you're just trying to squeeze Paul Manafort so that he will testify and give you information against President Trump.

    And the prosecutor said, no, no, no, that's not really what's going on. But the judge then did rule, actually, under — under Mueller's mandate, they do have the authority to go forward with this case.

    So it's unlikely if we're going to hear too much more about that, though, but the case does go forward.

  • John Yang:

    William Brangham outside of the federal courthouse for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, thank you very much.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome, John.

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