ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) – As the trial of President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort moved into its second day on Wednesday, Trump called for an end to a special counsel’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election that spawned the charges.
Manafort’s consulting work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine that earned him $60 million (£45.7 million) took the spotlight in testimony in federal court in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia. Prosecutors questioned veteran political consultant Daniel Rabin about the work he did for Manafort. Manafort, 69, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Manafort’s trial is the first under Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 14-month probe. Trump repeatedly has sought to discredit the investigation, which is also looking into any possible unlawful Trump campaign coordination with Moscow.
The Republican president wrote on Twitter, “This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!”
Russia has denied interfering in the election and Trump denies any involvement by his campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Moscow directed the hacking of political groups and disinformation on social media to undermine Trump’s presidential election opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The question of collusion with Russia is not at the heart of the case against Manafort – the charges largely pre-date the five months he worked for Trump during a pivotal period in the 2016 race for the White House, some of them as campaign chairman. Manafort is charged with tax fraud, bank fraud and failing to report foreign bank accounts.
Referring to the Manafort trial, Trump added, “These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion – a Hoax!” As he has before, Trump sought to distance himself from Manafort, saying he worked for him “a very short time.”
Democratic lawmakers rallied to Mueller’s defence. U.S. Representative Don Beyer said of Trump on Twitter, “He’s panicking. Congress must protect Mueller.” U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal told MSNBC: “These kinds of threats are no accident. They reflect a state of mind and an intent to obstruct justice.”
Mueller was appointed by the Justice Department’s No. 2 official last year to take over the FBI’s Russian investigation after Sessions recused himself from the probe because of his own meetings with Russia’s ambassador to Washington while serving as a campaign adviser to Trump.
In court on Wednesday, prosecutor Greg Andres asked Rabin, who produced TV ads for Manafort in Ukraine, about Rick Gates, Manafort’s former business partner who is expected to be a star government witness, and Manafort associate Konstantin Kilimnik.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis chastised both sides for using the term “oligarch,” saying it could give jurors the impression that Manafort was “consorting and being paid by people who are criminals.”
“Of course, there will be no evidence about that,” the judge added, and said that oligarchs are merely rich people.
Prosecutors also questioned FBI Special Agent Matthew Mikuska, an 11-year veteran of the agency who executed a search warrant on Manafort’s Alexandria condominium last year. Mikuska told jurors about the documents that were seized, describing loan agreements and applications, invoices and wire transfers.
In their opening statement on Tuesday, prosecutors said Manafort earned some $60 million in Ukraine and unlawfully failed to report a large portion of it to U.S. tax authorities.
They portrayed him as a tax cheat who hid the money in offshore accounts, and lied to borrow millions more against real estate in a bid to maintain an extravagant lifestyle once the work dried up.
Manafort’s attorneys described their client as a talented consultant who made it to the pinnacle of U.S. politics and on the global stage. They said he did not wilfully mislead or deceive the Internal Revenue Service, and that he was betrayed by Gates, who pleaded guilty to making false statements after being indicted by Mueller.
Manafort attorney Thomas Zehnle at Tuesday’s opening made it clear the defence plans to make attacking Gates a central element of their defence. Zehnle said Gates would “tell untruths” about Manafort and accused Gates of embezzling funds from their business.
A Manafort conviction would give momentum to Mueller, who has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies, including 12 people court documents described as Russian intelligence agents who hacked into Democratic Party computer networks. An acquittal would support efforts by Trump and his allies to portray the investigation as politically motivated to threaten his presidency.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld in Alexandria, Virginia; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; writing by Will Dunham; editing by Grant McCool)