Defense attorneys attempted to portray Paul Manafort as a man who misplaced his trust in a friend and business partner Tuesday, while prosecutors pitched the case to jurors of a longtime lobbyist who believed himself to be above the law.
The opening statements, delivered on the first day of the former Trump campaign chairman’s tax and bank fraud case in Alexandria, Virginia, offered the first glimpse of Manafort’s defense strategy.
Defense attorney Thomas Zehnle called Manafort a “talented political consultant and a good man.” Zehnle said Manafort’s error was misplacing his trust in one crucial person: Rick Gates, a longtime business associate who pleaded guilty to separate criminal charges in Washington, D.C., and who began cooperating with special counsel prosecutors in February.
“The case rests squarely on the shoulders of this star witness,” Zehnle said, foreshadowing a likely defense strategy that will focus on discrediting Gates.
But the prosecution served up a different narrative. “The man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him,” prosecutor Uzo Asonye said in his 30-minute opening statement.
Facing jurors, Asonye described how the longtime political operative hid tens of millions of dollars in offshore accounts. That money, generated from years of lobbying in Ukraine, “bankrolled” Manafort’s lavish lifestyle, Asonye said.
Asonye described Manafort, who has a law degree from Georgetown University, as “shrewd” in his work, deceiving bookkeepers, tax preparers and the Internal Revenue Service to hide the income. And when Manafort’s “cash spigot” from his lobbying work suddenly closed, he secured millions through fraudulent bank loan applications, Asonye said.
The opening comments came on the first day of trial after Judge T.S. Ellis III delayed it by a week.
As a sign of the volume of information the lawyers will have to sort through in the two to three-week trial, the government called up one witness after opening statements Tuesday afternoon: Tad Devine, a one-time lawyer who has spent the last 25 years as a political consultant, including serving as chief strategist for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run.
Prosecutor Greg Andres peppered him with questions about his previous work with Manafort and the Ukraine, which stretched as far back as 2005, including political consulting for the 2010 election of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
With exhibits flashed on courtroom TV screens, including emails and memos among Manafort and business associates, Devine described his work with Manafort, as well as Gates, Konstantin Kilimnik, and other political consultants who are expected to testify in the trial in the coming days.
That all came before a dozen seated jurors, who were selected earlier Tuesday morning.
The day started with 65 potential jurors filing neatly into Ellis’ courtroom. The judge, Manafort’s lawyers and prosecutors deliberated over potential jurors for hours before settling on a panel of six men and six women. Four alternates, three women and a man, were also seated.
Ellis began the trial by thanking them, saying that jury duty was one of the two cardinal duties of an American citizen, next to voting. He offered a “thumbnail sketch” of the slate of charges Manafort faces in Virginia, reminding jurors that Manafort should be presumed innocent.