Date
14 November 2018
Paul Manafort, US President Donald Trump's former campaign manager, is shown in this courtroom sketch on the opening day of his trial on bank and tax fraud charges in Alexandria, Virginia, on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters
Paul Manafort, US President Donald Trump's former campaign manager, is shown in this courtroom sketch on the opening day of his trial on bank and tax fraud charges in Alexandria, Virginia, on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Trump says collusion is not a crime as Russia probe trial begins

President Donald Trump again attacked Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia and the 2016 US election, reiterating that his campaign did not collude with Moscow and saying collusion is not a crime anyway, Reuters reports.

Trump commented hours before his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was due to go on trial on tax and bank fraud charges in Virginia. As the first trial in the 14-month Russia probe, the case throws a fresh spotlight on a federal criminal investigation that has dogged Trump’s presidency.

At the opening of the trial on Tuesday, prosecutors portrayed Manafort as someone who hid his wealth from political work in Ukraine.

Manafort felt tax and banking laws did not apply to him, a prosecutor said in the government’s opening statement, telling the Virginia federal court jury he opened more than 30 bank accounts in three foreign countries to “receive and hide” income.

A defense lawyer painted a drastically different portrait of Manafort and made clear he will go after one of the government’s star witnesses, former Manafort associate Rick Gates. Gates pleaded guilty in February to conspiring against the United States and lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

“This case is about taxes and trust,” Manafort’s attorney Thomas Zehnle told jurors in his opening statement. “His trust in Rick Gates was misplaced,” Zehnle said, accusing Gates of embezzling millions of dollars from Manafort.

He asked Manafort to stand up and face the jury, calling him “a good man” and a talented political consultant.

Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all 18 criminal counts, which center on allegations that he hid much of the US$60 million he earned in Ukraine in undisclosed overseas bank accounts and failed to pay taxes on it.

Mueller is investigating whether Trump campaign officials worked with Moscow to try to sway the 2016 US presidential election, something commonly referred to as collusion by the media and public officials.

“Collusion is not a crime, but that doesn’t matter because there was No Collusion (except by Crooked Hillary and the Democrats)!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Conspiracy charges

While collusion is not a technical legal charge, Mueller is probing any coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, and could bring conspiracy charges if he finds that any campaign member worked with Russia to break US law.

Legal experts said that working with a foreign national with the intent of influencing a US election could violate multiple laws. “Collusion is basically a partnership in crime, which is conspiracy,” said Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at George Washington University.

Trump has for months denied that the campaign colluded with Russia to try to engineer his victory against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and he bristles at the suggestion he might owe his White House victory to Moscow.

On Tuesday, he echoed his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who said in television interviews on Monday that collusion is not a crime. The strategy may be the latest in Trump’s efforts to strip legitimacy from the Mueller probe, which he has long denounced as a “witch hunt”.

Russia has denied the finding of US intelligence agencies last year that it interfered to sway the election to Trump.

“The reason the Trump troops are pounding the ‘collusion is not a crime’ drum is because they colluded (better known as conspiracy, or aiding and abetting) and they want to get out in front of the story to control the narrative!” John Dean, President Richard Nixon’s legal counsel, wrote on Twitter.

First witness

The government’s first witness following opening statements was Tad Devine, who recalled his work with Manafort in Ukraine to help pro-Russian political figure Viktor Yanukovych.

“It was a really incredible operation,” Devine said of Manafort’s work for Yanukovych, who became Ukraine’s president in 2010, was removed from power four years later and lives in exile in Russia.

A Manafort conviction would give momentum to Mueller, who has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies since the probe started 14 months ago. An acquittal would support efforts by Trump and his allies to portray the investigation as a “witch hunt.”

Prosecutors have said they will not present evidence of collusion at this trial. The charges against Manafort largely pre-date his five months of work for the Trump campaign, some of them as campaign chairman.

Trump has vacillated between showing sympathy for Manafort and trying to distance himself. Manafort attended a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians that is a focal point of Mueller’s probe.

Earlier on Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys selected a 12-member jury to weigh Manafort’s fate. Four alternate jurors, three women and one man, also were chosen.

Manafort, 69, was seated in the courtroom wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie.

Asonye said Manafort set up more than 30 bank accounts in overseas countries and funneled millions of dollars into them in order to bankroll an extravagant lifestyle. Asonye described how Manafort snapped up expensive real estate in the United States, spent millions of dollars on renovating his properties and more than a half million dollars on “fancy clothes.”

Three other former Trump aides, including Gates, have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with Mueller’s probe.

Protesters

Prosecutors are seeking to provide details of Manafort’s work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, raising the possibility that new information about his Russian connections could emerge. Manafort has filed a motion to have details of that work excluded from trial.

Mueller was appointed by the US Justice Department’s No. 2 official last year to take over an FBI investigation.

Outside the courthouse, a handful of protesters displayed a life-sized puppet of Trump and held signs saying “Trump won’t do time for you,” “It’s Mueller time,” and “I like your new suit” alongside a photo of Manafort’s mug shot.

The Virginia trial will be followed by a second one in Washington in September in which Manafort is charged with money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent and witness tampering. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

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CG

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