The judge in Paul Manafort's financial fraud trial warned prosecutors Wednesday against using the word "oligarchs" to describe wealthy Ukrainians, and admonished lawyers for spending so much time documenting the former Trump campaign chairman's extravagant lifestyle.
It's not a crime to be wealthy, said U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III. And the pejorative term "oligarchs" and evidence of home renovations aren't necessarily relevant to the charges in question, he added. At one point, Ellis even called out lawyers from both sides for rolling their eyes.
"Let's move it along," Ellis said repeatedly.
The trial is the first courtroom test for special counsel Robert Mueller, who was tasked last year with investigating Russia's efforts to sway the 2016 election and to determine whether the Trump campaign was involved. So far, Manafort is the lone person to stand trial as a result of the probe, even though the charges of bank fraud and tax evasion are unrelated to possible collusion.
Still, the trial pulled back the curtain on the former lobbyist who steered Trump's election efforts for a time, including descriptions of Manafort's $ 15,000 US jacket made of ostrich and the more than $ 6 million in cash he put toward real estate.
At one point, an FBI agent described the July 2017 raid on Manafort's Virginia condominium. He said he knocked multiple times before entering with a key after no one answered, only to find Manafort sitting inside.
The searches described by agent Matthew Mikuska found expensively tailored suits and documents related to other luxury items allegedly bought by Manafort, including two silk rugs worth $ 160,000 paid from offshore accounts.
But when prosecutors introduced photos of Manafort's high-end condo and expensive suits, Ellis interrupted so as to limit the growing list of evidence jurors would have to consider.
"All this document shows is that Mr. Manafort had a lavish lifestyle," Ellis said at one point. "It isn't relevant."
On the term "oligarchs," Ellis said use of the word implied that Manafort was associating with "despicable people and therefore he's despicable."
"That's not the American way," the judge said.
Trump weighs in
The proceedings, which could last weeks, clearly caught the attention of President Donald Trump who defended his 2016 hiring of Manafort and suggested Manafort was being treated worse than mobster Al Capone. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the president indeed felt Manafort had been treated unfairly.
"Why didn't government tell me that he was under investigation," Trump tweeted Wednesday. "These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion – a Hoax!"
Manafort's defence attorneys are putting blame on Manafort's business associate Rick Gates, who has pleaded guilty in Mueller's investigation and who is expected by many to be government's star witness. Gates also worked on the Trump campaign.
Rick Gates, left, may be a key figures in Manafort's trial bank and tax fraud. This case is unrelated to any possibly collusion case, but it did emerged from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters, Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Manafort's attorney Thomas Zehnle has warned jurors that Gates cannot be trusted and is the type of witness who would say anything he could to save himself from a lengthy prison sentence and a crippling financial penalty.
"Money's coming in fast. It's a lot, and Paul Manafort trusted that Rick Gates was keeping track of it," Zehnle said. "That's what Rick Gates was being paid to do."
Manafort has a second trial scheduled for September in the District of Columbia. It involves allegations that he acted as an unregistered foreign agent for Ukrainian interests and made false statements to the U.S. government.
The other 31 people charged by Mueller so far have either pleaded guilty or are Russians seen as unlikely to enter an American courtroom. Three Russian companies have also been charged.
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