Defense Rests In Paul Manafort Case Without Calling Him Or Other Witnesses

Aug 14, 2018
Originally published on August 15, 2018 7:17 pm

Updated at 1:59 p.m. ET

Paul Manafort's defense team rested on Tuesday without calling any witnesses to testify in the bank and tax fraud trial, including Manafort himself.

The move means the trial is nearing its end, as closing arguments are expected to begin on Wednesday morning.

Defense attorney Kevin Downing told Judge T.S. Ellis III about his team's decision before the court broke for lunch Tuesday and repeated it again in the afternoon to make it official in front of the jury.

When asked by the judge if he wanted to testify in the trial, Manafort replied: "No sir," in a low tone.

Manafort, a longtime political operative who served as Donald Trump's campaign chairman in 2016, has pleaded not guilty to 18 counts of bank and tax fraud.

His defense team filed a motion this week to drop the charges — a motion the judge denied on Tuesday morning.

Ellis said the defense's dispute with the criminal charges is a "jury issue" to be decided by the six men and six women who have been hearing evidence in the case.

Prosecutors spent more than 10 days in court, over three weeks, making their case to the jury. They concluded their arguments on Monday.

The government's attorneys alleged that Manafort used overseas bank accounts to hide millions of dollars from the IRS that he made from political consulting work in Ukraine.

After that income dried up, prosecutors say, Manafort turned to loans for which he qualified by lying to banks. Jurors have heard testimony that Manafort was advocating on behalf of one of his bankers with Trump's transition team, trying to help the man get a nomination to a post in the Pentagon.

Ultimately the banker did not receive a nomination or another government job.

After both sides make their closing arguments Wednesday, Ellis is expected to give the jury instructions before jurors retire to deliberate.

If convicted of all charges, Manafort could spend the rest of his life in prison.

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Now the fate of President Trump's former campaign chairman rests in the hands of a jury. Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Paul Manafort trial each presented their closing arguments today. Manafort is charged with tax and bank fraud. NPR's national Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been there for the entire trial in Alexandria, Va. She joins me now. Hey there, Carrie.


CORNISH: I understand Paul Manafort did not take the stand in his own defense. What reason did his attorneys give for that?

JOHNSON: The defense says the government bears the burden of proof in this case. And they say that heavy burden has not been met, so they didn't bother to put on any case of their own. In closing arguments today, the defense team talked about Paul Manafort's history as a top political consultant to presidents from Gerald Ford to Donald Trump.

They said this accounting and tax stuff was complicated, so Manafort consulted with bookkeepers and accountants. They said, not something you do if you were carrying out a fraud. And they claim the special counsel team pored through documents trying to find places where the numbers didn't match - in essence, nitpicking. Finally, as they've done since day one, this defense team blamed Paul Manafort's former business partner Rick Gates for most of his troubles.

CORNISH: Prosecutors did call something like 27 witnesses, though, over the course of this trial. What is the government's case against Manafort?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Prosecutors said the defense wants you to believe it's all about Rick Gates, but really, it's not. Greg Andres, one of the top prosecutors in this trial, said the star witness here has actually been the documents, documents where Paul Manafort implicated himself. The government showed an email where Manafort claimed ownership of one of the 31 foreign bank accounts at issue in the case.

Then the government displayed an email where Manafort was directing Rick Gates to break the law, with Manafort telling Gates, you be the quarterback here. Well, prosecutor Andres said if Gates is the quarterback, Paul Manafort is the coach and the owner of that team. The government said the defense is trying to distract the jury because they're afraid of all that evidence. And the government invited the jury to read it all, and the jury took close notes during the government's presentation.

CORNISH: Can I ask you more about that? Because now that there have been closing arguments, what is the task ahead for them?

JOHNSON: Well, the jury can deliberate as long or as little as they like. There are more than a dozen charges in this case, 18 to be exact. And some of them are highly technical bank and tax fraud cases. There are also 388 exhibits. Several of the (laughter) jurors have been nodding their heads when the lawyers talk about speeding things up, so they may be eager to return to their normal lives after 12 days in court. But even though they haven't been reading the news or watching TV, they also know this is a big case and one that deserves their attention.

CORNISH: You've been reporting about Judge T.S. Ellis and the comments he's made throughout this trial. Did any of that come up again today?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Late in the day, the judge actually gave this jury a formal instruction about his comments and questions during the trial. The judge said, you should not construe any comment the court may have made as the judge expressing his opinion about the evidence. And he said his questions were not intended as an opinion about the verdict. He said, disregard some or all of my comments.

And speaking of comments, while the jury was outside the courtroom today, the judge made some more. The judge was having a back-and-forth with one of the prosecutors, Greg Andres. The prosecutor said the defense argument was cogent. And the judge said, their arguments were cogent? Audie, there's never a dull moment in this case. And while we're waiting for the jury to render the verdict, I'm sure there are going to be some more surprises and pitfalls along the way.

CORNISH: Before I let you go, can I just ask you about the atmosphere?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The atmosphere has been very interested. There have been members of the public who have traveled from all over the country and who live in this neighborhood in Alexandria, Va., who have been lining up. And they're competing with reporters in the courtroom for some very scarce space, which has led to some frazzled attitudes and (laughter)...

CORNISH: Yikes (laughter).

JOHNSON: ...Minor confrontations in the courtroom. So you got to have sharp elbows in there to keep your seat. Thank you.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks for sharing your reporting.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.