Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team appeared to struggle in front of federal judge T.S. Ellis on day two of the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in Alexandria, VA, Wednesday.
The 78-year-old Reagan-appointed judge rebuked Mueller’s prosecutors repeatedly, casting doubt on the strength of their arguments.
It is looking increasingly possible that Manafort, who is facing charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering, making false statements, and working as an unregistered agent of the government of Ukraine, may end up prevailing in court, making the special counsel look foolish.
Mueller’s prosecutors stunned the courtroom when they told the judge they may not put their “star witness” Rick Gates on the stand to testify against Manafort, his former business partner.
While prosecutor Uzo Asonye was questioning an FBI agent about a financial document authored by Gates, Judge Ellis interrupted the testimony to ask why the agent was being asked about the document and not its apparent author.
“He may testify in this case, your honor, he may not,” Mr. Asonye answered.
This revelation reportedly set off a stampede of reporters out of the courtroom to report the stunning news.
“That’s news to me and about 25 others who scurried out of here like rats on a sinking ship,” Judge Ellis told Asonye.
The prosecutor told the judge that the evidence presented would “determine which witnesses testify,” prompting a sharp rebuke from the judge.
“You know who you are going to call,” he said. “If you are going to call Mr. Gates, this is a waste of time.”
It turns out, the defense was looking forward to cross-examining purported liar/crook/embezzler/snitch Gates, who is suspected of being willing to say whatever Mueller’s team wants in exchange for leniency.
In his opening statement on Tuesday, defense attorney Thomas Zehnle blasted Gates, calling him a liar who embezzled millions from Manafort’s company and then committed financial fraud to cover it up.
“Rick Gates had his hand in the cookie jar,’’ Zehnle said. “Little did Paul know that Rick Gates was lining his own pockets.’’
Manafort also never set up Cyprus accounts that prosecutors say are at the heart of his fraud, Zehnle said. Rather, other people set up accounts that wealthy backers of the Ukrainian Party of Regions insisted on using to pay him, Zehnle said.
“Paul Manafort did not create this arrangement, and he was certainly not trying to mislead or defraud the Internal Revenue Service,’’ Zehnle said.
According to the Washington Times, Mueller’s team spent an inordinate amount of time on Wednesday talking about Manafort’s opulent lifestyle, including how he spent “millions on luxury clothes and automobiles with much of it paid with wire transfers from offshore bank accounts.”
When they tried to introduce photos of the high-end clothing in Manafort’s closets, Ellis pointed out that those images would end up in the media and called them “unnecessary” for jurors to see.
The AP published a number of photos like this one from Manafort’s closet:
“Enough is enough. We don’t convict people because they have a lot of money and throw it around,” he said.
Ellis reportedly sent jurors out of the courtroom several times so he could remind prosecutors that Manafort is not on trial for simply having a “lavish lifestyle.”
The judge also rebuked prosecutors when they kept using the word “oligarch” to describe wealthy Ukrainians, telling them that the term is a “pejorative” and would risk unfairly prejudicing jurors against Manafort.
He also surprised the courtroom late in the day when he said, “I’m hoping to finish this case much sooner than anyone predicted.”