The first trial of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, is set to to begin in Alexandria, Virginia, on Tuesday for charges related to bank and tax fraud.
Prosecutors have said they will not explore allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in this case. In September, Manafort is slated to face a second trial in Washington, D.C., on separate charges of money laundering and failure to register as a foreign agent. He has pled not guilty to all of the charges.
Here’s what you need to know.
Who is Paul Manafort?
Paul Manafort is a veteran Republican lobbyist and lawyer who later worked in Eastern Europe. Before becoming Trump’s campaign chairman, he spent several years doing consulting work for the Party of Regions in pro-Russia Ukraine, and for Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president. Manafort has said his firm received over $17 million for their work for the party between 2012 and 2014. Yanukovych was eventually ousted in a violent revolution in 2014, after which he fled to Russia. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team is investigating Manafort’s ties to Yanukovych and other Eastern European oligarchs, and allegations of tax and bank fraud were raised in the process.
Manafort will be the first of Trump’s former aides to stand trial.
What is Manafort’s relationship to President Donald Trump?
Manafort was Trump’s campaign chairman from May 2016 to August 2016. He was hired in March after pointing to his experience advising presidential election campaigns in the past (he was involved in the campaigns of Republicans Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole). However, he also presented himself as a Washington outsider — saying he “will not bring Washington baggage,” something that appealed to Trump — and he initially offered to work for free.
Manafort’s ties to Trump began before the 2016 election. In the 1980s, Trump hired Manafort’s lobbying firm to help the Trump organization. And, in 2006, Manafort and his wife bought a Trump Tower apartment.
As part of the election team, Manafort initially took the lead in securing votes from delegates at the Republican National Convention. After a power struggle with Corey Lewandowski, Manafort was promoted to campaign chairman and chief strategist in May. He controlled day-to-day operations, as well as managing the budget, advising hiring decisions, and shaping media strategy. He was a major presence during the Republican National Convention and, at the time, denied inquiries about the campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
On Aug. 17, 2016, Trump reorganized his staff in a way that minimized Manafort’s role on the team after news reports documented his dealings with Russia. Two days later, Manafort resigned from the campaign, and his roles were replaced by Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.
Ever since Manafort has been implicated in his dealings with Russian and Ukrainian operatives, the White House has attempted to distance him from the campaign. Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in 2017 that Manafort played a “limited role for a very limited amount of time” in the campaign.
What does the Mueller probe have to do with this?
Mueller has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. As part of his work, he scrutinized Manafort’s ties to Russia and discovered violations of the law in the process. Manafort was charged with bank and tax fraud after allegedly failing to pay taxes on money that he made in Ukraine and lying about having offshore bank accounts.
Mueller’s critics claim that his prosecution of Manafort is outside the scope of his Russia investigation, claiming that Mueller is exceeding his authority by prosecuting this case.
The judge, T.S. Ellis III, has repeatedly suggested that Mueller is only pursuing the case to pressure Manafort into implicating Trump. “You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” he said in a hearing. “You really care about what information Mr. Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment or whatever.”
However, the judge ultimately allowed the case to proceed, determining that Mueller’s team had followed proper protocol. Ellis concluded that, as Mueller investigated “indirect links” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, he was permitted to “prosecute federal crimes that arise out of his authorized investigation.”’
What has Trump said about Manafort?
Trump has distanced himself from Manafort, but he’s also defended him and argued the prosecution is politically motivated.
Trump told reporters “Paul Manafort worked for me for a very short period of time” in June. His staff has echoed these claims. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Manafort was “brought in to lead the delegate process, which he did, and was dismissed not too long after that.” In June, Trump tweeted the pursuit of Manafort is “very unfair,” after citing that his former campaign chair played instrumental roles in the campaigns of other Republican presidential nominees, like Ronald Reagan.
During a recent interview with Fox, Trump has likened the investigation into Manafort to Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone, who was brought down on tax evasion charges. “With Paul Manafort, who really is a nice man, you look at what’s going on, it’s like Al Capone,” Trump said.
“It’s just a sad thing,” he added.
What is the Virginia trial about?
Manafort’s Alexandria trial will delve into allegations of tax evasion. Prosecutors are expected to argue that Manafort’s expensive homes and other luxury items don’t add up to the incomes he declared on previous tax returns.
Court documents allege that Manafort, with the assistance of Rick Gates, his former top aide, “engaged in a scheme to hide income from United States authorities, while enjoying the use of the money.” Documents also include allegations that Manafort failed to pay taxes on his income by disguising it as loans, and that he used offshore accounts to purchase real estate in the United States.
Mueller’s office said it plans to call 35 witnesses, including Gates, who has already pleaded guilty in Mueller’s investigation.
Jury selection begins Tuesday.
What is the Virginia trial not about?
Manafort’s first trial won’t be focusing on collusion, according to prosecutors. It will be focused specifically on Manafort’s supposed financial crimes relating to his work in Ukraine.
Ellis warned the prosecutors to refrain from dwelling on Russia, citing the current “antipathy toward Russians” and noting that “most people in this country don’t distinguish between Ukrainians and Russians.”
Mueller’s team assured him that they will not raise issues of Russian involvement in the U.S. elections. “I don’t anticipate the word ‘Russia’ will be uttered by a government witness,” responded one member of the special counsel team during a pre-trial hearing.
The trial will only touch briefly on the Trump campaign. Mueller’s team plans to bring up evidence that a banking executive approved a fraudulent loan application from Manafort in exchange for a role on the campaign (which he received) and the promise of a job in the Trump Administration (which never materialized). The judge allowed Trump to be mentioned specifically in that capacity.
Nevertheless, the trial will provide more insight into the depth and breadth of the Mueller probe.
Manafort will later face a second trial in D.C. in September, where he faces separate and more serious charges of conspiracy to launder money, failure to register as a foreign agent for his lobbying efforts in Ukraine, and obstruction of justice for attempted witness tampering.
Correction: July 31
The original version of this story misstated who has been implicated in his dealings with Russian and Ukrainian operatives. It is Paul Manafort, not Robert Mueller. The original version of this story also misstated Paul Manafort’s name in two places. He is Paul Manafort, not Paul Manfort.
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