The much-awaited testimony of Rick Gates—a star witness in the tax and bank fraud case against Paul Manafort—ended in courtroom fireworks Monday as the judge overseeing the case tangled with a U.S. prosecutor over how to speed up his questioning.
On the fifth day of the former Trump campaign chairman’s trial in Alexandria, Virginia, the government’s crucial witness—and the man Manafort’s attorneys will attempt to discredit—testified to committing bank and tax fraud with his former boss. Gates, who will continue testimony Tuesday, told jurors he was often working under Manafort’s direction.
Gates has formally cooperated with the government since February after striking a deal and pleading guilty to two federal crimes in a related case in Washington, D.C. Manafort stared silently at his former protege as he testified Monday, only breaking his gaze to consult with his lawyers.
Judge T.S. Ellis III appeared at times to crimp prosecutor Greg Andres’ questioning. When Andres moved to introduce pages from Gates’ passport reflecting his travel to Ukraine, Ellis said the passport didn’t “matter a hill of beans” to the case.
Once Gates and jurors left, the judge addressed Andres again: “I’ll give you an opportunity to educate me … why some of this is relevant,” Ellis said. One problematic point for Ellis was Andres’ questions to Gates on the wealthy Ukrainians he and Manafort worked with, and whose payments to Manafort were described by Ellis as political contributions.
Andres replied the people he named weren’t merely making political contributions, but that their profiles and their motives mattered. He described the Ukrainians as oligarchs who control portions of the Ukrainian economy, a previous point of contention for the judge and lawyers.
Ellis fired back: “That makes it even clearer to me that that doesn’t have anything to do” with the government’s allegations in the trial. What matters, he said, was whether Manafort received money and lied about it.
Throughout the exchange, Ellis instructed Andres to look at him rather than looking down or consulting lawyers at his table, echoing earlier comments he had made to lawyers. Ellis, at one point, remarked that Andres could be looking down as if it to say, “That’s B.S.” When Andres pushed back, Ellis added: “Alright then, look at me. Don’t roll your eyes.”
With Andres again replying he had not, Ellis ceded some ground: “You’ve never rolled your eyes, but you’re not the only one sitting at” the counsel’s table, he said.
Toward the end, Andres again argued to the judge that it wasn’t “extraneous or irrelevant” to demonstrate that the Ukrainians with whom Manafort worked had controlled industries in Ukraine.
Andres pointed out that a crucial part of the defense lawyers’ opening statement highlighted discrediting Gates as a witness, and therefore many of his questions were aimed at corroborating what Gates will testify.
Ellis, who said that was a good explanation and would keep that in mind, closed the day’s session by urging both sides to move the matter along before the trial moves into its sixth day.
Andres wasn’t the only target of Ellis’ ire Monday. After Downing disclosed earlier in the morning that Gates would be among the government’s next witnesses, a flood of reporters rushed out of the room.
Upon returning from a break, Ellis remarked that at least half a dozen people “jumped up and ran out of here.” The judge noted it happened once before—when a side comment from a prosecutor suggested Gates might not testify at all.
Ellis said at that time, it was disruptive and mildly amusing. This time, he said, it was not as amusing and was, in fact, “equally or more disruptive.”
“You may not do that,” he instructed the onlookers in his courtroom.