U.S. President Donald J. Trump‘s former campaign chief Paul Manafort went on trial on Tuesday on charges brought by the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Manafort, 69, is charged with bank and tax fraud related to his lobbying activities on behalf of the former Russian-backed government of Ukraine.
The charges against Manafort — the first member of Trump’s election team to go on trial — were brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, but they are not connected to the defendant’s tenure as Trump’s campaign chairman.
Graying at the temples and somewhat leaner after a month in prison, Manafort was dressed in a dark suit and white shirt when he arrived in court with his five lawyers. He appeared relaxed and did not make any remarks.
A few anti-Trump protesters gathered outside the courthouse holding signs reading “Lock Him Up,” “It’s Mueller Time” and “Trump Wouldn’t Spend One Second In Prison For You.”
Angelique Brickner, a 53-year-old artist, and her 17-year-old daughter were among the members of the public who snared seats in the packed courtroom.
“I came here because I want to see justice done and prove to my daughter that there is justice when the world is upside down,” Brickner said.
Manafort, a veteran Republican political consultant who worked for Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole, served as chairman of Trump’s presidential election campaign for three months in 2016 before being forced to step down amid questions about his lobbying work in Ukraine.
He is charged with filing false tax returns for not reporting bank accounts he held in Cyprus and other countries in a bid to hide millions of dollars in income from activities on behalf of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych.
He also stands accused of failing to report the existence of foreign bank accounts to the Internal Revenue Service and bank fraud related to several multi-million-dollar loans he obtained from various banks.
The banks involved in the fraud charges are Genesis Capital, Citizens Bank, Bank of California and Federal Savings Bank in Chicago.
Selection of a 12-member jury for “USA vs Manafort” began at 10:00 am (1400 GMT) before U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis in a courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.
Jury selection is expected to last a day or two, and the trial is then expected to last about three weeks.
The judge gave “a brief thumbnail sketch” of the accusations against Manafort to the potential jurors.
During questioning of the potential jury, Manafort grimaced and shook his head at some moments while smiling and chuckling with his attorneys at others.
The judge said the U.S. was correct in their argument that documents of Manafort’s income reports were relevant on principle, but the judge had not checked every document.
“I do not want a data dump in the record,” the judge said, highlighting the need for witness testimony to reveal what is important about the documents.
Prosecutors plan to produce nearly three dozen witnesses during the trial, including Manafort’s former associate Rick Gates, who is cooperating with the government after pleading guilty to lesser charges in February.
Five witnesses have been granted immunity to testify against Manafort.
Mueller has indicted more than 30 people so far in connection with his probe into whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to help get the real estate tycoon elected.
Trump has repeatedly denounced the probe as a politically motivated “witch hunt” and denied there was any collusion with Moscow to defeat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Collusion is not a crime, but that doesn’t matter because there was No Collusion (except by Crooked Hillary and the Democrats),” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.
While Gates and others, including former national security advisor Michael Flynn, have pleaded guilty, Manafort has refused to strike a deal and has insisted on having his day in court.
Legal experts said Manafort may be hoping to be found not guilty — or holding out hopes of a presidential pardon.
Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, said the odds are stacked heavily against the former A-list political operative.
“Mueller only has to secure one conviction on one count to put Manafort away for as much as a decade,” Turley said. “At 69, that must weigh heavily on his mind.”
Turley also said he believes “jurors are not likely to identify or empathize with Paul Manafort,” whose lavish spending and lifestyle is outlined in court documents.
Manafort may be “playing a pardon strategy,” he said.
“He may feel that he doesn’t have much to lose in going to trial and preserving his chances for a pardon,” he said. “If he cooperates with Mueller, a pardon is going to be substantially reduced in likelihood.”
Manafort has spent the past month in prison after having his house arrest revoked by a federal judge for allegedly tampering with witnesses in another pending case.
He is scheduled to go on trial in September on separate charges brought by Mueller of conspiracy, money laundering and failing to register as an agent of a foreign government.
with reporting by Daniel Payne