Judge T.S. Ellis III hasn’t been shy about controlling the courtroom in Paul Manafort’s trial, pushing prosecutors to limit their questioning, and scolding both sides for rolling their eyes or making funny faces.
That admonishment came on the second day of the former Trump campaign chairman’s tax and bank fraud trial in Virginia, which has so far gotten off to a “rocket docket” start.
The government called up two witnesses Wednesday morning—longtime political consultant Daniel Rabin, and FBI special agent Matthew Mikuska, who conducted the pre-dawn raid on Manafort’s Alexandria, Virginia, home last summer. Ellis repeatedly took prosecutor Uzo Asonye to task about the usefulness of his questions for Mikuska, calling lawyers to the bench to discuss certain kinds of evidence for which Manafort lawyer Richard Westling raised objections.
“Rein in your facial expressions,” Ellis told lawyers for both sides multiple times, after returning from a brief recess. He said it was reported to him that lawyers on “both sides” were seen rolling their eyes during the morning’s proceedings.
If he were to see those things, Ellis warned he would be a “little upset.” He added: “And it’s inappropriate,” telling lawyers they couldn’t express their views through facial expressions.
Asonye appeared flustered by the judge’s interruptions, at times. Manafort lawyer Kevin Downing even tossed his hands into the air during Asonye’s questioning at one point.
“Mr. Manafort is not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle.”
From the outset of the trial, Ellis made clear that he wanted a fast-paced trial. On Wednesday, he did not want to let photographs slow things down.
Ellis rebuffed Asonye’s attempts to show—or “publish”—photographs and copies of documents at several points during the morning. While he allowed prosecutors to display invoices for upgrades to Manafort’s properties, along with pages from Manafort’s passport, he rejected Asonye’s request to show a contractor’s proposal for a home improvement project.
“That’s an estimate,” Ellis said. “It doesn’t show anything except the extent of the work.”
Ellis cautioned prosecutors against showing evidence simply to underscore Manafort’s lavish lifestyle.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “We don’t convict people because they have a lot of money and throw it around.”
Later, reminding prosecutors that Manafort is charged with bank and tax fraud, Ellis said: “Mr. Manafort is not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle.”
“If it doesn’t say ‘Men’s Wearhouse’ …”
After running through documents related to home improvements, Asonye turned to Manafort’s oriental rugs and pricey suits. Asonye named Bijan as one luxury brand represented among what Mikuska described Wednesday as “closets full” of suits discovered at Manafort’s Alexandria apartment.
Ellis did not appear to share Manafort’s sartorial interests. “I don’t recognize these names,” Ellis said, referring to the suits. He continued, “If it doesn’t say ‘Men’s Wearhouse’ …” before his voice was drowned out by laughter in the courtroom.
Asonye later described Bijan as “a very specific clothemaker.”
Ellis refused to allow prosecutors to show photographs of the suits. “To parade all of this, again, seems to be unnecessary, irrelevant and maybe unfairly prejudicial,” Ellis said.
“Rick Gates” mention sends reporters racing.
As Mikuska read aloud a document obtained in the Manafort home search—notes written by Rick Gates, a longtime business partner of Manafort—Ellis appeared to bristle.
“You’re going to offer Mr. Gates” as a witness, “aren’t you?” he asked Asonye, questioning the usefulness of Mikuska reading the document to jurors.
“He may testify in this case, he may not,” Asonye replied.
That comment sent reporters rushing out of the courtroom. Moments later, the judge remarked that Asonye’s comment “was news to me.” He joked that it was also apparently news to the journalists who “scurried out of here like rats leaving a sinking ship.”
Asonye clarified that his comment wasn’t meant to suggest they would not bring in Gates. Like all possible witnesses, he said, the government would assess whether they needed those witnesses as the trial proceeds.