Manafort’s right-hand man turns on him
Rick Gates, the star prosecution witness in the tax and fraud trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, testified this week that he committed numerous crimes at the direction of his former business partner, while defense attorneys sought to paint Gates as a habitual liar who swindled Manafort. Gates, who served as the veteran Republican operative’s deputy for more than a decade, described how he worked with Manafort in Ukraine to help elect a Russia-aligned president in 2010—work for which Manafort was paid tens of millions of dollars by Ukrainian oligarchs. To dodge U.S. taxes, Gates said, those payments flowed through shell companies and bank accounts in Cyprus, which were tapped to support Manafort’s luxurious lifestyle in the U.S. When the money ran out, Gates said, Manafort lied to banks to secure loans and once personally edited a profit-and-loss statement to show his firm had $3 million in profit instead of more than $600,000 in losses.
Manafort’s defense team attacked Gates as not credible, noting that he had admitted to embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Manafort, some of which was used to finance a transatlantic extramarital affair. Gates admitted it was also “possible” that he had stolen funds from Trump’s inaugural committee, on which he’d served as deputy chairman. “After all the lies you’ve told,” said defense attorney Kevin Downing, “you expect this jury to believe you?” Gates, who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, said he did. “I’m trying to change,” he explained.
What the columnists said
Americans might hear all this and think, “So what?” said Franklin Foer in TheAtlantic.com. On its face, “the Manafort trial has little to do with Trump, let alone Russian collusion.” But it has exposed how Manafort’s corruption infected Trump’s presidential campaign. According to Mueller’s prosecutors, Manafort promised a campaign job to a Chicago banker in exchange for $16 million in loans. “The banker ended up as one of the Trump campaign’s 13 official economic advisers.” Was that really the only quid pro quo deal struck by Manafort?
Much of the prosecution’s case has amounted to “rich equals guilty,” said David Warrington in TheHill.com. They wasted hours describing how Manafort blew $15,000 on a custom-made ostrich jacket and $21,000 on a watch. But his spending habits have nothing to do with tax avoidance. Mueller’s team is simply trying to exploit juries’ natural prejudice against the wealthy, and the assumption that if you have a fat wallet, you must have committed a crime. Manafort could face life in prison if found guilty, so he deserves “a fair trial on the actual charges.”
This trial must be agony for Trump, said Jennifer Rubin in WashingtonPost.com. His witch hunt argument—“No crimes! Nothing to see!”—is evaporating as we discover exactly why prosecutors have been going after his cronies. And worse is yet to come. Manafort will go on trial again later this year, unless he strikes a deal, for failing to register as a foreign agent for a Russian-backed Ukrainian party. “That’s when we’ll hear plenty about Russia.”