Day seven of the Paul Manafort trial took a technical turn Wednesday, an indication that prosecutors could be wrapping up their case against the former Trump campaign chairman.
Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime deputy and the prosecution’s star witness, walked out of the courtroom late Wednesday morning after more than 10 hours of testimony that spanned three days.
FBI forensic accountant Morgan Magionos walked jurors through her special counsel-ordained investigation that revealed how Manafort purchased luxury goods back in the U.S. through foreign bank accounts.
Manafort, the high-powered political consultant, is facing 18 counts of tax evasion and bank fraud and a maximum 305-year prison sentence if the Eastern Virginia jury finds him guilty.
He is the first subject of special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation to stand trial.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from day seven:
1. As the prosecution turns technical, damaging evidence piles up
Prosecutors called their second government witness of the trial to the stand Wednesday to outline the investigative methods that led to the tax evasion charges against Manafort.
FBI forensic accountant Morgan Magionos used charts, emails from Manafort to his lawyers in Cyprus, and other corroborating documents to detail how Manafort funneled roughly $15 million from hidden offshore accounts to purchase home electronic installations, real estate, fancy clothing, such as the now-infamous $15,000 ostrich-skin jacket, and other luxuries from 2010 to 2014.
Magionos provided some of the most damning evidence yet that Manafort knew about and had direct control over some of the 31 foreign bank accounts in Cyprus, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United Kingdom that he never reported to his bookkeeper and tax preparers.
Numerous emails admitted into evidence Wednesday showed how Manafort personally directed wire transfers from such accounts.
In one exchange published in court Wednesday, Manafort instructs his Cypriot lawyer, Kypros Chrysostomides — referred to in court as “Dr. K” because, according to Gates, his name is difficult to spell and pronounce — to transfer money from the Manafort-controlled Leviathan Ltd.
“Pls make the 5 transfers listed below from the Leviathan account and confirm to me when completed,” he wrote in an email to the Cypriot law firm that maintained signatory control over his accounts.
From the prosecution’s perspective, Magionos’ testimony was key to the jury’s understanding of the case.
She essentially connected the dots of testimony from previous witnesses — vendors, Manafort’s bookkeeper and accountants, and Gates — but did so in a way that presented direct links between one witness’s part of the story and another’s.
“It actually kind of shows in real time the course of months of investigation where they painstakingly did a jigsaw puzzle of records,” former U.S. prosecutor Harry Litman said of Magionos’ testimony.
Litman said he believed the indictment was difficult to put together — “but once put together, a pretty straightforward case to prove.”
In its cross-examination of Magionos, the defense presented pieces of evidence with Manafort’s signature on them, calling into question whether Manafort had actually written his signature on the foreign accounts.
“Those appear to be substantially different, don’t they?” defense attorney Richard Westling asked Magionos, showing her Manafort’s signatures on a loan application to the Bank of California and one of the foreign banking documents.
“Yes,” Magionos replied.
On re-direct from the prosecution, Magionos agreed that two of Manafort’s signatures on the same foreign bank document appeared different — implying that he didn’t always sign his name the same way.
Judge T.S. Ellis III said it would be up to the jury to decide if the signatures were different.
2. Judge continues to berate prosecutors
Speaking of Ellis, the 78-year-old U.S. District Court judge overseeing the Eastern Virginia trial renewed his angry tone with prosecutors Wednesday.
He barked at U.S. Attorney Greg Andres to “focus sharply” — a common refrain of his over the past week — when Andres asked permission for Magionos to testify about charts she put together detailing the flow of money from Manafort’s foreign accounts to various vendors in the U.S.
Ellis appears to have singled out Andres, said Litman, who appeared before Ellis while he was with the Justice Department for roughly five years in the mid-1990s.
“I do somehow think he has gotten his back up personally about Greg Andres. I’m not sure why, but there have been certain exchanges at sidebar that have seemed not all that judicious to me,” he said.
At times, Ellis has crossed lines, Litman said.
After Gates testified that Manafort was “pretty good about knowing” where his money was, Ellis couldn’t suppress a quip that appeared to call into question Gates’ testimony.
Manafort couldn’t have followed his income “that closely” since Gates had “stolen” hundreds of thousands of dollars from him, Ellis said.
“That’s really beyond the pale for the judge,” Litman said of the exchange, which took place during cross-examination, in front of the jury.
Before jurors are sent off to deliberate at the end of a case, the judge typically tells them not to read anything into either the judge’s words or body language, attorney and law professor Seth Abramson said in an email.
“I would be surprised, given what’s occurred in the Manafort trial, if Judge Ellis didn’t issue this relatively standard instruction,” Abramson said. “Right now, it seems clear that it’s the prosecution that should be specifically requesting that instruction from the judge in advance, as Judge Ellis has had some unusually cutting words for the prosecutors in this case.”
3. Gates leaves the witness stand a pariah — but probably with his plea agreement intact
Mueller’s team called on Gates to testify this week so they could introduce evidence that showed, among other dealings, that Manafort authorized foreign wire transfers from accounts he did not report on his tax returns and that he fudged the numbers on a profit and loss statement in 2016 in order to secure a bank loan.
Gates, Manafort’s longtime right-hand man, pleaded guilty in February to one count of conspiracy against the United States and one count of lying to an FBI agent in exchange for testifying against his former boss.
Gates faced a thrashing to his reputation from lead defense attorney Kevin Downing on Tuesday and Wednesday as Downing sought to undermine Gates’ credibility as a witness.
He badgered Gates into admitting that he had engaged in an extramarital affair with a woman in London roughly 10 years ago and briefly questioned Gates about three other affairs before prosecutors objected.
Gates admitted to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars — $3 million, Downing claimed, but could not definitively prove — from Manafort.
Gates admitted to hiding his own income from the IRS in offshore bank accounts. And he lied to special counsel investigators after striking a plea agreement with them.
“After all the lies you’ve told and fraud you’ve committed, you expect this jury to believe you?” Downing asked Gates Tuesday, a rhetorical question everyone present at the trial with any courtroom experience saw coming a mile away.
Downing’s smear of Gates may not matter if jurors think the documentary and email evidence prosecutors presented lines up with Gates’ testimony.
“Generally, when a person’s testimony is corroborated by objective evidence — whether that be a recording, a document, or something else — it makes it difficult to attack that by just attacking the witness’s credibility,” a former U.S. attorney with experience prosecuting similar fraud cases said.
“They may not like him. They may think he’s a sleazebag — but that’s not going to make them overturn how they view the documents,” the former attorney said.
Watch: What I Learned From 4 Days Covering the Manafort Trial