Manafort found guilty on 8 counts in fraud trial

Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, was convicted Tuesday on eight felony counts after a trial on charges of bank and tax fraud brought by special counsel Robert Mueller. The federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia, declared a mistrial on the remaining 10 charges.

The guilty verdicts in the first trial conducted by Mueller’s team do not implicate President Donald Trump, but could help insulate the special counsel’s Russia investigation from Trump’s charges of a “witch hunt.”

Manafort is also expected to stand trial next month on a separate set of federal charges in Washington.

In a note sent just after 4 p.m. on their fourth day of deliberations, jurors told U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III they had reached a verdict on eight of the counts but couldn’t agree on the remaining ones.

Five of the guilty verdicts were for filing false tax documents, and the other three involved bank fraud and foreign bank account registration.

Earlier in the day, the jurors had signaled to Ellis the deadlock on the 10 counts and asked for help on what to do in this situation. Reading from a standard instruction for jurors, the judge essentially encouraged the group to keep trying.

After the conviction, Manafort, 69, faces the strong possibility of spending his remaining years in prison, unless Trump intervenes with a pardon or commutation to spare his former top 2016 campaign aide. Many observers consider that a likely outcome given Trump’s repeated statements in recent days that Manafort and others in Mueller’s sights were being treated unfairly.

“So many lives have been ruined over nothing — McCarthyism at its WORST,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

The jury of six men and six women deliberated for four days before returning the verdicts on charges stemming from millions of dollars Manafort earned as a political consultant in Ukraine prior to Trump’s presidency.

Manafort becomes the sixth person convicted in Mueller’s investigation, which has previously netted guilty pleas from former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, among others.

Even as Manafort awaits sentencing in the Virginia case, the veteran lobbyist and consultant is preparing for a second trial scheduled to open on Sept. 17 in Washington, D.C. Mueller previously indicted him there on charges of money laundering, witness tampering and failing to register as a foreign agent, also in relation to his political work in Ukraine.

Most of the charges Manafort faced in the Alexandria case bore no direct connection to Trump or Mueller’s central mandate to explore potential collusion between Russian interests and Trump’s campaign. However, some of the bank fraud charges against Manafort involved claims that he fraudulently obtained $16 million in bank loans by trading on his influence in Trump circles.

During the three-week trial, there was no discussion of Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential race. But prosecutors depicted Manafort as caught in a serious financial squeeze at the time he volunteered to run Trump’s campaign — without pay. Lacking clients after his Ukraine work dried up in 2014, when the president he had advised was ousted, Manafort was scrambling for big loans to sustain his opulent lifestyle, prosecutors argued. A $210,000 credit card bill for New York Yankees season tickets went unpaid for months.

Left unsaid was the possibility that Manafort’s financial straits and his longstanding ties to oligarchs with interests in both Ukraine and Russia left him vulnerable to Russian efforts to impact the 2016 campaign and the nascent Trump administration. One of Manafort’s key associates in Ukraine was Konstantin Kilimnik, who Mueller’s team has said in court documents has ties to Russian intelligence and who is now a co-defendant on the witness-tampering charges Manafort faces in Washington.

Prosecutors said Manafort earned more than $60 million between 2010 and 2014 consulting for Ukraine’s Party of Regions, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and political allies. Mueller’s team said Manafort parked much of that money in offshore accounts in Cyprus and the Grenadines, failed to report those accounts to the U.S. government and transferred more than $15 million of the money to the U.S. without paying taxes on it, using the funds to purchase several homes, landscaping and more than $1 million in custom-made suits.

Defense attorneys sought to shift the blame to Manafort’s longtime deputy, Rick Gates, who was charged in the scheme at one point but agreed to cooperate with Mueller as part of a plea deal. Under cross-examination, Manafort’s lawyers depicted Gates as a crook who embezzled money from Manafort to sustain a “secret life” of extramarital affairs.

Defense attorney Kevin Downing argued that Gates “fell apart” on the witness stand, admitting to a series of massive frauds. “He could not afford the lifestyle he was living, and that’s why he was stealing money,” Downing said.

However, Mueller’s team ridiculed the notion that Gates had unilaterally concocted a scheme that aimed to saved Manafort millions of dollars in U.S. taxes.

“Does that make any sense at all? We should all be so lucky,” prosecutor Greg Andres told jurors in his closing argument last week.

Regardless of Gates’ intention, he was intimately familiar with Manafort’s financial dealings overseas and the web of foreign companies and bank accounts used to receive the Ukraine-related proceeds. His testimony added to a damning mountain of documents and emails tying Manafort to the offshore accounts and to the millions transferred to U.S.-based home improvement contractors, luxury car dealers and others helping him outfit his lavish lifestyle.

The email evidence appeared so incriminating that Manafort’s defense urged jurors to ignore it.

“Think about what was testified to and who testified about it. We’d ask that you rely on that,” Downing said.

Many experienced attorneys said that Manafort’s decision to try to fight the bank- and tax-fraud charges defied typical legal strategy given the mountain of evidence against him. Some likened it to a kamikaze mission or a “slow guilty plea.”

However, there were signs Manafort might have believed his best option was to position himself as a martyr of Mueller’s investigation and then persuade Trump to issue a pardon wiping out the convictions.

On Instagram, longtime Trump adviser and former Manafort lobbying partner Roger Stone posted a picture during the trial’s closing days of a young boy wearing a “Free Paul” T-shirt.

The pardon theory got added credence last month when prosecutors released a partial transcript of a recorded phone conversation Manafort had in June, telling an associate there were reasons his team wanted a trial first in the D.C. case.

“Think about how it’ll play elsewhere,” Manafort said. “There is a strategy to it, even in failure, but there’s a hope in it.”

Manafort’s defense team seemed to shift focus in the trial’s closing days to messages aimed at the public and, perhaps, the White House. Downing, who remained mum outside the courtroom during the trial, spoke to the assembled media and TV cameras repeatedly in recent days. On Friday, he thanked Trump for weighing in publicly on Manafort’s behalf.

“We were very happy to hear from the president and that he’s supporting Mr. Manafort,” Downing said.

The sheer volume of charges against Manafort and the staggering amount of potential prison time they carried — up to 305 years in the Virginia case alone — may have also contributed to Manafort’s calculation not to plead guilty. Even if he cut a deal with prosecutors, he’d be almost certain to receive many years in prison.

At the Virginia trial, Mueller’s prosecutors spent two weeks methodically building their case to the jury, presenting emails, Manafort’s bank records, invoices and other subpoenaed documents — hundreds of pieces of evidence in all.

While Ellis stressed that Manafort wasn’t on trial for his wealth, prosecutors still spotlighted his luxury purchases, including $15,000 for an ostrich jacket, $2.2 for audiovisual installations and about $450,000 for landscaping at his Hamptons vacation home outside New York City, complete with a decorative red flower bed in the shape of an “M”.

They also detailed the unusual payment methods he used to fund those purchases: wire transfers from foreign bank accounts with strange sounding names like Yiakora Ventures and Globar Endeavour.

Mueller’s team argued the veteran political consultant filed false income tax returns from 2010 to 2014 and failed to disclose his foreign bank accounts.

To demonstrate Manafort’s bank-fraud charges, the special counsel brought in both low-level officials and senior executives from three banks who testified that Manafort submitted documents with inaccurate information about his income, his debts and whether properties were being used by family members or as rental units.

Manafort’s role on Trump’s campaign also made a few cameos, but Ellis sought to minimize discussion of politics at the trial. Some references snuck in anyway, as when the defense told jurors that Manafort worked at “the pinnacle of U.S. politics,” earlier advising the presidential bids of Republicans Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole.

Manafort first came under FBI scrutiny several years ago, leading bureau officials to interview him and Gates about the sources of payments for their work in Ukraine.

Questions about Manafort resurfaced in August 2016 — nearly five months into his Trump campaign tenure — after a spate of media reports describing his past lobbying work for pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs, including a New York Times article revealing a secret ledger kept for those accounts.

Campaign sources told POLITICO at the time that Trump family members, including Kushner, were upset that Manafort hadn’t been forthright about his overseas work.

“I think my father didn’t want to be, you know, distracted by, you know, whatever things Paul was dealing with,” Eric Trump, the president’s middle son, said in a Fox News interview amid the Manafort shakeup.

Another former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, with whom Manafort clashed, later recalled Trump’s initial reaction to reports that Manafort had earned illicit millions in Ukraine: “I’ve got a crook running my campaign.”

While Manafort left the campaign — replaced by Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon — he didn’t really leave the Trump orbit. He remained in touch with key officials, according to a May 2017 POLITICO report, including a call with incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus a week before the inauguration to give advice about the unfolding Russia investigation.

Mueller indicted both Manafort and Gates together in October 2017, marking the first official public actions in the Russia probe. The two men turned themselves in to the FBI to face charges of failing to register as foreign agents in connection with their Ukraine-related work, making false statements to the Justice Department and laundering millions of dollars earned from advancing the interests of Yanukovych in Washington.

For months, the two men seemed friendly as they sat across the defense table from each other at court hearings in Washington, sometimes chatting as their lawyers engaged with the judge. But by January, Gates was in negotiations with Mueller’s team for a potential plea deal.

After those talks stumbled, the special counsel piled additional charges on both men in Virginia for bank fraud and filing false tax returns.

Gates quickly finalized a plea bargain, agreeing to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy against the United States and another count of making a false statement during a meeting with prosecutors and FBI agents.

Back in February, Manafort expressed disappointment at his protégé’s move, issuing a statement that proved mild compared to the assault Manafort’s attorneys unleashed on Gates at the trial.

“I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence,” Manafort said. “For reasons yet to surface, he chose to do otherwise.”