As he has repeatedly noted, President Donald Trump is not directly implicated in Paul Manafort’s Virginia trial.
In fact, his name was barely mentioned in the first five days of the tax and bank fraud case brought against his former campaign chairman.
But that changed Tuesday during a full day of testimony by Rick Gates, the prosecution’s star witness and another former member of the campaign. Trump was indirectly referenced in multiple ways throughout the testimony, highlighting the risks to the president of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
At first, Gates merely noted that in March 2016 Manafort hired him to work for “one of the presidential candidates.” But then prosecutor Greg Andres invoked Trump’s name, and Gates’ and Manafort’s work on the campaign became more explicitly tied to the alleged crimes at the heart of the trial.
According to Gates, Manafort, who had by then left the campaign, asked Gates in various ways to use his position on Trump’s team to do favors for Stephen Calk, a banker who had loaned Manafort millions of dollars — loans that Mueller’s team alleges were consummated under false pretenses. Gates testified that Manafort asked him to float Calk, who was on Trump’s economic advisory council, for Secretary of the Army. “We need to discuss Steve Calk for Sec(retary) of the Army,” Manafort wrote to Gates in an email on November 24, 2016. Manafort also included Calk on a list he emailed to Gates of people he wanted to invite to Trump’s inauguration.
By that time, Gates was working on Trump’s inaugural committee. In a heated moment under cross examination by attorney Kevin Downing, Gates acknowledged that it is “possible” he submitted personal expenses for reimbursement from the committee. It’s a practice he has admitted to doing to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars from Manafort, and under pressure from Downing, he agreed that it could be called embezzlement.
Of course, Trump was not involved in these alleged crimes. But Tuesday’s proceedings were in some ways a reflection on him nonetheless. Trump often boasts that he hires “the best people,” and the sixth day of the trial showcased two people who worked for him, one who allegedly tried to use his influence in Trump’s circle to boost someone he had a sketchy financial relationship with, and another who admitted under oath that he may have stolen money from Trump’s inaugural committee. And the fact that after loaning Manafort millions of dollars Calk became an economic adviser to Trump casts doubt on Trump’s famous pledge to “drain the swamp” and puncture the rampant influence peddling in Washington.
More broadly, this trial is a direct result of the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump’s campaign contacts with Russia. The crimes Manafort allegedly committed do not have bearing on that central question, but they were uncovered in the course of the special counsel investigation; this is the first trial resulting from Mueller’s probe. And Manafort made millions of dollars working as a political consultant for a pro-Russia party in Ukraine before he worked for the Trump campaign, which could raise questions about Trump’s friendly rhetoric towards the country.
It was a long day of drama between the former business associates, who didn’t appear to meet each other’s eyes in the courtroom. Gates has already pled guilty to two counts in Mueller’s probe and testified against Manafort as part of a plea deal with the special counsel’s office. During cross examination, defense attorney Downing tried to undermine Gates’ credibility, noting the benefits he had gotten from his deal with the government, the fact that he made a false statement to investigators, his “scheme” to embezzle from Manafort, and even his “secret life” with a mistress.
Gates admitted to cheating on his wife about 10 years ago, but denied using company money to fund his affair, even as Downing sarcastically noted the apartment Gates kept in the U.K.: “A flat? Is that what they call it in London?” These questions about Gates’ extramarital tryst also carried faint echoes of Trump, coming less than a month after the release of a tape in which Trump can be heard discussing buying the rights to the story of a woman who claimed to have had an affair with him.
Gates’ voice remained steady and calm throughout his roughy six hours of testimony Tuesday. But he could be seen twitching under cross examination by Downing, blinking hard as he faced the defense lawyer and sucking in his lips.
“I’m here to tell the truth and take responsibility for my actions,” Gates said in response to a question from Downing about his trustworthiness. “Mr. Manafort had the same path. I’m here.”
And in the background, the president was too.