The trial of President Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort is coming to a quieter than expected end. Manafort’s defense team rested its case on Tuesday without presenting any evidence, which means the trial will move on to closing arguments from both sides at a federal courthouse in Virginia on Wednesday.
The veteran political operative is being tried by a team of prosecutors from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office on a slew of charges related to financial crimes and money laundering.
Kevin Downing, the attorney who’s leading Manafort’s defense, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The special counsel’s office declined to comment.
While the defense’s decision not to present witnesses to rebut the government’s case raised some eyebrows, it is in line with a common legal strategy, according to Shanlon Wu, a former federal prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney.
It’s a “standard thing to do,” Wu said of the defense strategy, including the decision not to have Manafort take the stand himself.
“It’s certainly not unexpected not to put on Manafort because it’s always risky to put on the defendant,” he said.
Wu stressed that he has no access to confidential information in the case, though he has been a close observer of Manafort’s trial. He previously represented Rick Gates, who worked as Manafort’s deputy at a political consulting firm.
Gates agreed to cooperate with government prosecutors and became a key witness against Manafort after facing his own charges of conspiracy and lying to the FBI. Wu’s representation of Gates ended with that deal to testify.
According to Wu, the decision to rest without presenting a case “can be viewed as a sign of confidence by Manafort’s defense team.”
Manafort’s attorneys may feel they did enough during cross-examination to make their case in closing arguments, he suggested. “They’re also trying to send a signal to the jury that, not only have we done enough, but really the government just hasn’t proven its case,” Wu added.
Throughout the Manafort trial, which began late last month, prosecutors have detailed an alleged scheme by Trump’s former campaign manager to dodge taxes on tens of millions of dollars his firm made working for a Ukrainian political party allied with the Kremlin. According to the prosecutors, Manafort became accustomed to a lavish lifestyle and sought to maintain it by lying to obtain loans when the money dried up.
Manafort’s defense has tried to counter the complex and detailed case against him by suggesting that Gates was responsible for some of the financial improprieties and that any alleged misrepresentations by Manafort were immaterial to decisions to grant him loans.
Prosecutors have argued that Gates worked directly under Manafort, who had ultimate control and authority at their company. They have also shown emails and documents indicating Manafort was well aware that making false statements in loan applications was a crime and that he attempted to use his political connections to have bank executives give preferential treatment.
For his part, Wu said the defense team had “at least made a credible argument” that Gates could have acted on his own. Wu specifically cited the fact that Manafort’s attorneys were able to detail instances where Gates stole from the company, and those details were not disputed “by Gates or by the prosecutors.”
While Downing, Manafort’s lead attorney, did not respond to requests for comment after resting his case on Tuesday, he said during a recess last week that he was “always” optimistic about his cases.
“That’s a good way to live,” Downing added.
Regardless of the outcome in this case, Manafort continues to be investigated by the special counsel as part of the larger probe into whether the Trump campaign cooperated with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The charges relating to Manafort’s finances could be an effort by the special counsel to get him to cooperate in the investigation into Trump. Along those lines, Manafort may have decided to face the charges rather than make a deal with prosecutors in hopes for a presidential pardon from Trump.
The president, who has denied that any collusion with Russia took place, has sent multiple tweets stressing that Manafort worked for him for a “short time” and emphasizing that the trial was not directly connected to the election. On Monday, as Trump returned to the White House following a lengthy stay at his club in New Jersey, reporters asked if he had a “message to Manafort.” Trump ignored the question.
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