By Brendan Smialowski/APF/Getty Images.
At least a dozen journalists jumped from their seats and made a beeline for the doors at the back of the courtroom on the ninth floor of the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, as Paul Manafort’s defense attorney barked four unexpected words: “Mr. Gates is next up.” The startling moment came as attorney Kevin Downing was nearing the end of his tedious cross-examination of Cindy Laporta, Manafort’s former accountant. When Downing, whose hulking figure seems more suited for a football field than a courtroom, asked Laporta whether she would have informed Manafort that Rick Gates, his former deputy and business associate for a decade, was embezzling from him, the government’s objection was swift. Prosecutor Uzo Asonye argued there was no evidence in the court record that his team’s star witness had stolen from his longtime boss. Downing shot back that it was only a matter of time until it was, bringing an end to the favored guessing game of the news media for the past week.
Laporta’s response to the original prompt was lost amid the chaos and anticipation that engulfed the courtroom. As Downing wound down his cross of the gray-haired accountant, reporters were dashing in and out of the wood-and-black-marbled room, some tagging in interns staked outside the door to keep their seats warm in a kind of hybrid, musical chairs–style relay. “I got to the payphone first,” one breathless reporter quipped triumphantly to her colleague. Clearly attuned to the fact that the attention of the courtroom tourists before him was elsewhere, Judge T.S. Ellis III called a 20-minute recess. It was 2:45 P.M.
Reports notwithstanding that Gates could take the stand as early as Monday, few expected a cameo from the former deputy chairman of the Trump campaign on the fifth day of the much-heralded, highly scrutinized U.S. v. Manafort trial. By noon on Monday, one hour before Judge Ellis’s proceedings were set to begin, the atmosphere outside the nearly 90-year-old courthouse was eerily calm. There was a discernible collegiality amongst the dozens of reporters seeking reprieve from the sweltering 91-degree cloudless day, or camped out in folding vinyl chairs, typically ubiquitous at kids’ soccer games. The scene had developed the tabloid qualities of a Hollywood trial: a mess of multi-colored cords, tripods, camera bags, and white tents littered the courtyard in front of the entrance. Politico’s Josh Gerstein and Darren Samuelsohn could be found shooting recaps of the first four days of the trial for social media on a smartphone. Other journalists were scurrying in and out of Café Gallery & Market, the deli to the right of the courthouse where, for $2 an item, one could stash any and all electronics in exchange for a jagged hunk of a Post-it note with a number.
But after the Eastern District Court judge exited to his chambers, the tension was palpable. During the break, trial watchers relegated to the overflow room on the sixth floor of the courthouse descended upon the main courtroom like vultures, hoping to snag seats from attendees foolish enough to take bathroom breaks or stretch their legs. “It’s open court,” one man to my right snarled, taking the seat of one such reporter against the protestations of a colleague tasked with saving it. More recognizable, make-up ready faces from cable news—including NBC’s Ken Dilanian and CNN’s Jim Sciutto—flowed in and out. And when Judge Ellis returned to the courtroom, he condemned the mass exodus of journalists.
“It happened once before,” Ellis said, an apparent reference to a moment earlier in the trial when the prosecution floated that they might not call Gates at all. “This time it was not amusing and equally or more disruptive,” he continued, adding a warning to anyone who failed to leave in a “quiet and orderly way” in the future.
Despite Downing’s jolting disclosure, the prosecution did not call Gates next. Instead, the government summoned Paula Liss, a senior special agent with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, to take the stand. This surprise move prompted a handful of dejected reporters to quietly slink out of the courtroom to update their stories or fire off tweets. But at 4:15, Gates was finally called forward. A silence fell over the court.
Dressed in a navy blue suit and a gold tie, Gates took the stand. Tanned and beardless, with his hair neatly chopped, he stood in stark contrast to his former boss, who looked haggard with a head of hair at different lengths, patchy—a far cry from the well-maintained coif that many had grown accustomed to during his brief but eventful stint as a major player in the 2016 election cycle.
As he sat down, Gates appeared to focus his sights anywhere but on the defendant. He looked straight ahead at prosecutor Greg Andres. But as Gates shunned his longtime mentor, Manafort fixated on the man he’d hired as an intern a decade ago. If Gates had any qualms about turning on Manafort, he didn’t show it. When Andres asked whether he had committed any crimes with Manafort, he responded bluntly, “Yes.” And after testifying that he conspired with Manafort in a years-long tax-fraud scheme, Gates confirmed what the defense team has asserted throughout the trial: he stole from Manafort for years. Given authority over off-shore accounts in Cyprus, Gates said he informed Mueller’s team, as part of his plea deal, that he “added money to expense reports and created expense reports” that were not accurate, to line his pockets with “several hundred thousand” dollars.
At one point during his 1 hour and 15 minute testimony, Gates stated that Manafort was “probably one of the most politcally brilliant strategists” he had ever worked with. But the loyalty and camaraderie that was often ascribed to the relationship between the two men was inaccessible on Monday. Early on the stand, Gates dismissed the notion that he had anything beyond a professional relationship with Manafort, belying the once pervasive narrative that he would never flip on his mentor. And when asked whether he personally benefitted from the loans he helped Manafort falsify, Gates responded bitingly, “No, I did not.” Gates, who faces up to 10 years in prison and could be charged with more crimes if he fails to uphold his end of the plea agreement, was emotionless as he repeatedly implicated Manafort, who could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
The prosecution’s inquisition of Gates came to a near standstill as the former Trump-campaign No. 2 approached the one-hour mark on the stand. Judge Ellis lashed out at Andres for the pace of the trial. “Let’s get to the heart of the matter,” Ellis bellowed from the bench, frustrated with the prosecution’s focus on Gates’s passport and the individuals who paid Manafort, and indirectly Gates, for their lobbying work in Ukraine. “We need to focus sharply,” he instructed the government. And as the clock crept past 5:30 P.M., Ellis called on the prosecution to find a good resting spot.
But after the jury filed out of the the courtroom, Ellis and Andres engaged in an intense sparring match over what is and is not relevant to the case. Last week, Ellis barred the prosecution from using the word “oligarch”—arguing that the phrase carries negative connotations. On Monday, he picked the mantle back up. “You don’t need to throw mud at these people,” Ellis asserted, accusing the prosecution of casting “dispersions” on unfairly questioning the motivations of billionaires in the Ukraine. Andres pushed back forcefully and at several points drew reprimands from Ellis for not making eye contact with the judge. “Look at me,” he commanded.
As the two quibbled about oligarchs, the specter of Donald Trump—whose name had not yet been spoken by Ellis, the defense, the prosecution, or any witness—loomed over the proceedings. The broader Russia probe, after all, is much bigger than Manafort or Gates, or any individual associate of the president, who has dismissed Mueller’s entire investigation as a “witch hunt.”
Yet the names of various figures in Moscow’s orbit were occasionally unavoidable: Oleg Deripaska, Konstantin Kilimnik, Viktor Yanukovych. As much as Ellis sought to keep them out of the courtroom, their lingering presence alluded to further trials to come. As the White House well understands, the fate of Paul Manafort is, in many ways, a proxy for what the Russia saga may behold. On a more prosaic level, as evidenced by this intriguing and made-for-cable-TV spectacle, the Manafort-Gates showdown is also a preview of the public brawl to come as other members of the ragtag Trump network jockey for legal immunity or are induced to flip on one another. As this trial suggests, Mueller and Co. have the horsepower to force even the thickest of thieves to engage in legal combat to preserve some measure of their freedom.
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