Every morning, like clockwork, a crowd gathers on the 9th
floor of the federal courthouse here. They arrive alone or in twos or threes – some as early as 7 a.m. – to get a bird’s-eye view of the ongoing tax evasion and bank fraud trial of President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
While many of the seats are occupied by news reporters, many others are claimed by curious members of the public hoping to watch a portion of the real-life drama unfolding in Courtroom 900.
“I find it fascinating that you can just walk into a courtroom like this and watch a major trial,” says Kate, who lives in Alexandria.
Debbie Loving is far from home in Colts Neck, N.J. She was in the nation’s capital last week to view some real estate when she noticed the Manafort trial was about to start.
She has been a regular in court every day since. “We got a little addicted,” she explains with a laugh.
The case, United States of America v. Paul J. Manafort, Jr., marks the first major courtroom test of the work of special counsel Robert Mueller. Although his team of agents and prosecutors are tasked with investigating alleged collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia, they are also authorized to prosecute other crimes they discover.
Manafort is alleged to have engaged in tax evasion and bank fraud by hiding proceeds of his past work as a political consultant in Ukraine in offshore accounts. When that work ended and his income dropped, prosecutors say he submitted false information to banks to obtain loans on his property. He was applying for some of the loans while serving as chairman and later as manager of the Trump presidential campaign in mid-2016.
Manafort denies any wrongdoing.
The case is a straightforward white-collar prosecution, heavy in financial documents and testimony by accountants and tax experts. Such trials often play out as the legal equivalent of watching paint dry.
Nonetheless, it’s one of the hottest seats in town.
Sam lives a train-ride away across the Potomac in Washington. “I found myself following [trial analysis] on Twitter the other day and figured I’d hop on the Metro and see for myself,” he says, inching his way through a long line that snakes across the lobby.
When court security officers open the doors, the assembled throng pours forth into the public gallery. There is no reserved press section, and except for a few seats set aside for the defendant’s wife and some government lawyers, it’s first come, first served.
Every day of the trial, every seat has been taken. To handle the overflow, a courtroom on the 6th
floor has been outfitted with two closed-circuit TVs. The camera angle is fixed and the picture a little grainy. But it allows an additional 100 members of the press and public to watch.
There are no cameras allowed in federal court. To follow a federal trial requires actually going to the courthouse, showing a government-issued photo ID, and passing through security. No computers, no cell phones, no smart watches, no cameras, no tape recorders are allowed. Reporters must use a pen and paper to take notes.
Those standing in line outside the courtroom quickly become fully engaged in lively and well-informed discussions of trial tactics, defense prospects, and the most recent testimony. But one topic looms large in nearly every discussion: the judge.
“The judge is very colorful,” one court-watcher offers, diplomatically.
US District Judge T. S. Ellis is a Reagan nominee who has served more than 30 years on the bench. He was born in Bogota, Colombia, is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, and studied law at Oxford University.
Judge Ellis has a well-established reputation as a cantankerous jurist who is not shy about criticizing lawyers in his courtroom and personally directing a trial when, in his view, it is veering off course.
Assistant US Attorney Uzo Asonye was only a few moments into his opening statement, portraying Manafort as a person of substantial wealth who considered himself above the law, when he was loudly interrupted by Ellis.
“Why don’t you focus on the allegations in the indictment?” the judge advised bluntly. “It is not a crime to have a lot of money.”
A different judge might have given the same admonishment quietly at the bench, out of earshot of the newly seated jury. That’s not Ellis’s style.
There is some method to his bombast. He clearly and unambiguously put lawyers on both sides of the case on notice that he would not permit any courtroom shenanigans.
When prosecutors sought to introduce a proposal for expensive home improvements at Manafort’s summer estate in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island, Judge Ellis refused to allow the document to be admitted as evidence. “How is this relevant?” he asked. “Is it just that Mr. Manafort is awash in money?”
Some analysts have criticized Ellis as overplaying his hand and perhaps influencing the jury to the government’s detriment. Others say the judge is pursuing his highest sense of fairness – ensuring the defendant receives a fair trial and the government conducts a prosecution that won’t easily be overturned on appeal.
On the second day of the trial, the judge announced that both sides should refrain from using the term “oligarch” when referring to the wealthy Ukrainian businessmen who financed Manafort’s political consulting work. The term was pejorative, the judge declared, allowing prosecutors to suggest that Manafort “associated with despicable people, so he must be despicable.”
The judge isn’t always right. On Wednesday, Ellis ripped into prosecutors after they revealed that one of their tax experts had been monitoring the trial from the public gallery, saying he usually bars potential witnesses from watching in advance of their own testimony. Prosecutors countered that he’d approved the expert’s attendance. On Thursday, Ellis admitted in open court that he was “probably wrong” to berate the prosecutors.
He said he was capable of making a mistake, and that his judicial robe did not make him anything more than a human.
Gene Rossi, a Washington defense lawyer, served 20 years as a federal prosecutor in Alexandria. He appeared hundreds of times and conducted seven trials before Ellis.
“My body is covered entirely by war wounds from Judge Ellis’s court, and I am proud of every one,” he says. “He is tough. He expects lawyers to be perfect and when you come up short he lets you know.”
Mr. Rossi adds: “I respect him immensely.”
The lawyer says that in 2016 when he retired as a prosecutor, Ellis called him into his chambers for a visit. “At the end of the meeting he stood up and hugged me. He started to cry,” Rossi says, “and so did I.”
Sometimes interesting aspects of a trial can be found in smaller details. In this case, a sharp-eyed court sketch artist noticed something unusual.
Manafort, seated at the defense table, was dressed in a blue suit, white shirt, tie, and polished black shoes.
This was a man whose discerning taste in fine clothing was well-documented by federal agents. They introduced records that showed Manafort spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on bespoke suits, sport coats, and even $15,000 on an ostrich-skin jacket.
But what caught the sketch artist’s attention was what was missing between Manafort’s shoes and the cuffs of his trousers. He was wearing no socks.
Manafort is being held in a local jail during the trial. Apparently, the authorities who regulate detainee clothing only issue white socks to prisoners headed to court. Manafort, who has spent more in men’s clothing shops than many Americans will spent purchasing a home, apparently refused to wear white socks with a blue suit.
Somewhere in the fashion world there might well be a law about such things. The end result for Manafort: no socks.
The breaking news stampede
When news unexpectedly breaks out in a high-profile trial where no one has access to a cellphone, it can cause a literal commotion – as reporters abruptly bolt from their seats to go file bulletins.
On the second day of the trial, the judge asked why prosecutors were seeking to admit a particular document if they would later be calling Manafort’s former associate, Rick Gates, to testify. Mr. Gates, who pleaded guilty in February, is cooperating with prosecutors, and is considered the prosecution’s star witness.
The prosecutor replied: “He may testify in this case, he may not.”
The comment sent a jolt through the room. Six to eight reporters exited the courtroom in a full sprint.
On the fifth day of trial, during cross-examination of Manafort’s tax accountant, defense lawyer Kevin Downing commented that Gates would be the next witness. Again, a herd of reporters made a dash for the door.
The judge was not amused. He advised those reporters and spectators who had remained in their seats that similar disruptions in the future would not be tolerated.
The most dramatic moment of the trial, so far, came when Gates actually did take the witness stand.
“Did you commit crimes with Mr. Manafort?” a prosecutor asked.
Gates replied: “I did.”
The cooperating witness then went into substantial detail about how money was hidden in overseas accounts and routed, tax-free, into the US to pay for both his and Manafort’s personal expenses.
Gates also acknowledged that in addition to cheating the US Treasury, he also embezzled “several hundred thousand dollars” from Manafort. He told the jury he fabricated false invoices and directed payment to himself. It was a time when he maintained a flat in London and was involved in an extramarital affair, he admitted.
“I was living beyond my means,” he said. “I regret it. I made a mistake.”
“Was this embezzlement?” defense attorney Downing asked.
“It was embezzlement from Mr. Manafort,” Gates conceded.
Gates’ credibility is critical to the outcome of the trial. Manafort’s lawyers have suggested that Gates was responsible for the diversion of funds, the alleged tax evasion, and the failure to report overseas accounts. They pointed out that without his plea deal, Gates would be facing up to 100 years in prison for his own crimes. In exchange for his testimony against Manafort, the government has agreed to file no objection if Gates’ lawyer asks for probation instead of a prison term.
Gates testified that he and Manafort were both in control of the offshore accounts and that they both hid the accounts and wire transfers from bookkeepers and accountants.
If convicted, Manafort, in his late sixties, faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.
Prosecutors are expected to rest their case by Friday. At that point, the defense will have an opportunity to present its own case.