The trial against U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort began on Tuesday, with a jury being seated and opening statements being made by each side.
The U.S. prosecutor and Manafort’s attorney outlined their cases, giving an indication of how the respective sides intend to argue their case as the trial proceeds and witnesses are called.
Manafort has been charged with bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and tax evasion in the U.S. district court in Alexandria, Virginia. The political consultant also faces separate charges, including failing to register as a foreign agent in federal court in the District of Columbia.
The charges stem from an investigation of the Trump campaign by special counsel Robert Muller.
Uzo Asonye, a prosecutor for the United States, explained the government’s case in three parts: that Manafort is rich, in part because of illegal finances, which he achieved partially by lying to banks and the U.S. government.
According to the prosecution’s opening statement, Manafort is extravagantly wealthy. With seven homes, one of which had ten bedrooms and twelve bathrooms in the Hamptons, Asonye said Manafort was a financial elite. He spent half a million dollars on clothes and the same amount on rugs, according to the prosecution.
“He got whatever he wanted,” Asonye declared, adding that there was nothing wrong with being wealthy. The way the wealth was acquired and maintained, though, is the crux of the trial.
Asonye argued that Manafort, while facing financial trouble, lied to banks and the U.S. government to save money and take out loans. He had accounts in Cyprus and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and failed to report those accounts on his tax returns, according to Asonye. He said that Manafort falsified information given to banks to increase his prospect of acquiring a loan, as well as keeping information from his bookkeeper and tax preparer.
“A man in this courtroom believed he was above the law,” explained the prosecution, arguing that Manafort knowingly broke the law for his own financial gain. “That man is the defendant,” Asonye proclaimed, “Paul Manafort.”
Manafort’s defense attorney Thomas Zehnle spent much of his opening statement attacking the credibility of Rick Gates, a long-time business associate of Manafort’s who the government plans to call as its star witness.
Gates pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring against the United States and making false statements to investigators in February. Zehnle suggested Gates’ testimony against Manafort is motivated by a desire to lessen his sentence for his own crimes and argued the government’s “entire case” is based on his testimony.
Zehnle claimed that while working for Manafort, Gates embezzled money and hid wrongdoing from his boss so he wouldn’t be caught.
“[Manafort] is primarily here today because of one man … Rick Gates,” Zehnle said, arguing his client’s only wrongdoing was “placing his trust in the wrong man.”
Zehnle also framed Manafort’s political career as patriotic and downplayed the significance of his personal wealth.
“Paul Manafort has traveled in circles most people will never know, and he was handsomely rewarded for it, we don’t dispute that,” Zehnle said. But such wealth was earned by “rendering a valuable service to our system of government.”