(CNN) — Prosecutors accused former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of being a “shrewd” liar who orchestrated a global scheme to avoid paying taxes on millions of dollars, in opening statements that kicked off Manafort’s trial on Tuesday.
Manafort lived an “extravagant lifestyle” fueled by millions of dollars in “secret income” that he earned from his lobbying in Ukraine, said Uzo Asonye, a prosecutor working on the case with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team. Manafort became wealthy from the “cash spigot” that came from working for his “golden goose in Ukraine,” former President Viktor Yanukovych, Asonye said.
“All of these charges boil down to one simple issue: that Paul Manafort lied,” Asonye said. “Manafort placed himself and his money over the law.”
The case against Manafort outlined by prosecutors on Tuesday represents a new phase in Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling — the first jury trial stemming from the probe that President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked as a “witch hunt.”
In opening statements for the defense, Manafort’s defense attorney Thomas Zehnle laid out the bare bones of his side of the case, shifting much of the blame to the Ukrainian oligarchs Manafort worked for and the business associates he worked with.
“This is the way that they required it to be done,” Zehnle said, arguing why oligarchs paid Manafort through secret foreign accounts. Prosecutors said Tuesday that Manafort hid 30 foreign bank accounts from US authorities.
Of Manafort’s associates, like longtime deputy Rick Gates, Zehnle said, “he trusted them to speak with one another and make sure things were done right.” Gates pleaded guilty earlier this year to participating in Manafort’s alleged financial conspiracy and is slated to testify against him.
Both men were top officials in Trump’s campaign, but that is not part of the criminal case against Manafort in this trial.
Zehnle specifically attacked Gates and called him “the prosecution’s star witness.”
Manafort is facing 18 charges, including accusations of filing false tax returns, failing to report foreign bank accounts and defrauding several banks. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 305 years in prison. He has denied all charges.
Manafort arrived at the courthouse Tuesday morning wearing a black suit, with his hair neatly parted.
Luxurious spending habits
To demonstrate Manafort’s lavish spending habits, Asonye told jurors that Manafort owned several homes, acquired real estate in New York and Virginia, bought expensive cars and watches, and even got a $15,000 jacket “made from an ostrich.”
As he started delivering his opening statement, Asonye earned a near-immediate rebuke from Judge T.S. Ellis, who told him not to tell jurors that “the evidence will show” that the allegations against Manafort are true.
During his preliminary instructions to the jury, Ellis reminded told jurors that “you and you alone are the sole judges to the facts in this case.”
The opening statements were delivered not long after the jury was selected and sworn in on Tuesday. The 12-person jury comprises six men and six women. There are also four alternates, three women and a man.
Ellis had given the pool of 65 potential jurors an overview of the charges against Manafort, though he reminded the group that the indictment “is not evidence of any guilt whatsoever.”
The pool was also nearly evenly split between men and women. The group was predominantly white, with fewer than a dozen nonwhite potential jurors. Most were comfortably middle-aged.
Nine potential jurors indicated they have connections to the Justice Department, including four who said they were current or former federal employees. Two joked that they were “recovering attorneys.” All affirmed that they could handle the case without any bias.
None said they knew Manafort, his lawyers or their law firms.
One younger woman said she knew Justice Department attorneys from her work at a Silicon Valley-based tech company. Another man brought a John Grisham novel into the courtroom.
The trial is expected to last several weeks.
Manafort was a senior Trump campaign aide and he led the campaign for several months, but the charges are not directly related to campaign activity, as the White House has repeatedly emphasized.
“The judge has very strictly instructed no mention of Paul Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign, no mention of Trump, Russia or collusion,” senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday morning on Fox News. “This trial obviously centers on matters that have nothing to do with the campaign.”
While Trump has repeatedly railed against Manafort and the “witch hunt” on Twitter in recent weeks, he has not tweeted about Manafort specifically in more than a month. He said June 15 that Manafort received a “tough sentence” after his bond was revoked over allegations of witness tampering.
Manafort faces a maximum of 305 years in prison if he is convicted on all charges. Prosecutors say he hid millions of dollars in income from lobbying for Ukrainian politicians, failed to pay taxes while spending the money on US real estate and luxury purchases, and lied to banks in order to take out more than $20 million in loans.
Before jury selection got underway, Ellis said he did not plan to offer decisions on Tuesday about all of the documents that Manafort’s team wants to keep out of the trial. They hope to prevent jurors from seeing some documents and photos from Manafort’s lobbying work in Ukraine.
Instead, the judge gave broad directions to the prosecutors: Try to reduce the number of Ukrainian documents given to the jury, use testimony to add context and don’t refer to individual documents in opening statements.
Ellis said he thinks “the government’s correct” in using the documents to broadly show how Manafort made his money. Prosecutors say Manafort made $60 million from his work.
Appeals court rejects request to be freed
Manafort appears likely to remain in jail throughout his trial after a federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected his request to overturn a lower court’s decision to send him to jail before trial.
Tuesday’s ruling from a three-judge panel on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals was unanimous.
Manafort’s bail was revoked in June while he was on house arrest, after prosecutors accused him of tampering with witnesses.
The appellate judges said Manafort was rightfully jailed because he had decided “to push the envelope by contributing to an op-ed in a foreign newspaper” while under a gag order, and also had “repeated communications with potential witnesses” for his upcoming trial. In addition to his Virginia case, Manafort faces lobbying-related charges in Washington.
The panel agreed with some of Manafort’s arguments, for instance that the gag order in his Virginia case was somewhat ambiguous. But it ultimately said this wasn’t enough to look past Manafort’s conduct and set him free from jail.