US & Canada

Paul Manafort convicted: What did we learn from trial?

Paul Manafort is shown in a sketch as he sits in federal court on the opening day of his trial on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, 31 July 2018 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A courtroom sketch shows Mr Manafort seated during the opening day of his trial

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's conviction follows a trial chock-full of testimony about a high-rolling political operative whose luxurious lifestyle was "littered with lies".

Evidence about his fast cars, plush real estate and flashy clothing - including a $15,000 ostrich coat - made for colourful news copy.

But away from the legal jousting there seemed to be another man in the dock, as far as President Donald Trump was concerned - Robert Mueller, the special counsel whose Russia inquiry is dogging the White House.

The criminal trial of Mr Manafort was the first in Mr Mueller's 18-month investigation into whether Trump campaign aides colluded with alleged Kremlin attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election the Republican candidate's way, or if anyone obstructed justice.

The jury on Tuesday found him guilty on eight charges, but failed to reach a verdict on the remaining 10, and the judge declared a mistrial on those counts.

What was said in court?

The Mueller team accused Mr Manafort of using 31 foreign bank accounts in three different countries to evade taxes on millions of dollars and to indulge his expensive tastes, including a $21,000 watch.

The trial also shone a spotlight on Mr Manafort's former associate Rick Gates, who has admitted to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from his former boss while helping him commit crimes to lower his taxes.

Under a plea deal, Gates - who was also Mr Manafort's deputy on the Trump campaign - agreed to become star witness for the prosecution in the hope of leniency during sentencing.

The defence said that Gates "had his hand in the cookie jar". Gates testified that Mr Manafort did, too.

He told the court that Mr Manafort had directed him to lower taxable income by reporting overseas income as loans.

Gates also testified he had helped Mr Manafort file false tax returns, concealing 15 foreign accounts from the US government, despite knowing it was illegal.

In the process, he said, he submitted false expense reports to line his own pockets.

The trial also heard:

  • Mr Manafort's accountant testify she knew the way he was manipulating tax returns was "inappropriate" and that she believed he "knew what was going on"
  • A mortgage salesman whose bank gave Mr Manafort $16m in loans say he was "uncomfortable" with the dealings because he knew the bank chairman was after a job in the Trump administration
  • An Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent prepare charts documenting over $16m of spending over four years that Mr Manafort had never reported as taxable income

What does it mean for Trump?

The White House has sought to downplay the role of his former campaign chairman in Mr Trump's election campaign.

And the president told reporters after the verdict he felt sorry for the defendant, who was a "very good person" falling victim to a witch hunt.

Mr Mueller, meanwhile - according to Mr Trump just this week - is "disgraced and discredited" and "looking for trouble".

Mr Manafort was not accused of conspiracy relating to any collusion with a foreign power.

And Mr Trump's name barely even cropped up during the trial.

The case against Mr Manafort - of embezzling money made from his political consulting for Ukrainian politicians - largely predated his work for the Trump presidential bid.

The conviction - especially given the mixed outcome - is unlikely to silence Mr Trump's recurring outbursts against the special counsel.

But it may serve to undercut the president's contentions that the Mueller investigation is nothing but a politically motivated witch hunt.

That inquiry - which began in May 2017 - has so far resulted in the indictment of more than 30 people and six guilty pleas, including former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen on Tuesday.

Image copyright Alexandria Sheriff"s Office via Getty
Image caption From Brioni suits to jail garb: Mr Manafort is at the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia

Key background

What did it tell us about Robert Mueller?

Analysts say the Manafort trial provided an intriguing insight into the special counsel's playbook.

Harry Litman, a former US prosecutor and deputy assistant attorney general, told the BBC that Mr Mueller was running "a professional, meticulous, excellent operation".

Mr Litman added that the prosecution "told the story in as interesting and dynamic a manner as they could have", given that the star witnesses were really the financial documents.

"The case itself was difficult to investigate and put together, but pretty straightforward to present: 'here's a piece of paper, it's a lie. Here's another, it's a lie.' You add it up and it's 10 years of lies."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Paul Manafort resigned as chair of President Trump's election campaign after two months

Legal analysts say the conviction may also encourage other potential Mueller targets to co-operate to avoid a similar fate to Mr Manafort.

As for the president, Mr Litman told the BBC that the outcome is likely to be seen as a blow to Mr Trump.

"He's drawn a line in the sand to suggest that the whole operation is rigged and illegitimate," Mr Litman says.

"He's made this into a zero-sum game between him and Mueller.

"It need not have done that, but that's the upshot of the way he's gone to war against Mueller these last several months."

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Media captionManafort's indictment: Where did all the money go?

But there were also signs of friction during the trial between Judge TS Ellis and the Mueller team.

The judge interrupted the prosecution's opening remarks and on several occasions questioned the prosecution's tactics.

Judge Ellis did tell the jury to ignore one of his outbursts, saying he was "probably wrong."

But some of his scolding by the judge may have been warranted, legal analysts say.

Virginia-based criminal defence lawyer Greg Hunter told the BBC that when he was present for pre-trial hearings it seemed the prosecution was "poorly prepared and less than candid".

"Their investigative team is really, really good, but they're short a trial lawyer," he says.

"The guys they sent are just not terribly good at presenting a case to a jury."

He added that the Mueller prosecutors sometimes came across as too casual, answering Judge Ellis - who is known for his punctiliousness - with "yup's" and rolling their eyes.

Mr Hunter also noted that the apparent lack of preparation was all the more surprising given that the Department of Justice has brought many prominent cases before Judge Ellis before, including espionage, terrorism, anti-trust, and public corruption.

"They're really sharp lawyers, they've certainly uncovered a lot of facts and done a terrific job with their investigating.

"They were not prepared to try a case in Judge Ellis' courtroom and that's their fault."

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