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Jury seated for bank and tax fraud trial of former Trump campaign chief

Five witnesses have been granted immunity to testify against Manafort.

Paul Manafort arrives at federal court in Washington DC.
Paul Manafort arrives at federal court in Washington DC.
Image: UPI/PA Images

A JURY WAS selected for the high-profile trial of US President Donald Trump’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort, the first defendant to go to court to fight charges emerging from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Manafort, 69, is charged with bank and tax fraud related to his lobbying activities on behalf of the former Russian-backed government of Ukraine.

The charges were brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but they are not connected to Manafort’s tenure as Trump’s campaign chairman, and the issue of Russian meddling in the vote is not expected to figure at the trial.

Four other Americans charged by the former FBI director — including Manafort’s one-time business partner, Richard Gates — have pleaded guilty to lesser offenses.

A six-man six-woman jury was seated after a selection process of nearly four hours in the Alexandria, Virginia courtroom of US District Court Judge TS Ellis.

The trial is expected to last about three weeks.

Graying at the temples and somewhat leaner after a month in prison, Manafort was dressed in a dark suit and white shirt.

He appeared relaxed during jury selection, conferring with his lawyers, taking notes and smiling occasionally at the judge’s light-hearted remarks.

A few anti-Trump protesters gathered outside the courthouse holding signs reading “Lock Him Up,” “It’s Mueller Time” and “Trump Wouldn’t Spend One Second In Prison For You”.

Angelique Brickner, a 53-year-old artist, and her 17-year-old daughter were among the members of the public who snared seats in the packed courtroom.

“I came here because I want to see justice done and prove to my daughter that there is justice when the world is upside down,” Brickner said.

Manafort, a veteran Republican political consultant who worked for Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole, chaired Trump’s presidential election campaign for three months in 2016 before being forced to step down amid questions about his lobbying work in Ukraine.

He is charged with filing false tax returns for not reporting bank accounts he held in Cyprus and other countries in a bid to hide millions of dollars in income from activities on behalf of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych.

He also stands accused of failing to report the existence of foreign bank accounts to the Internal Revenue Service and bank fraud related to several multimillion-dollar loans he obtained from various banks.

‘No Collusion’

Prosecutors plan to produce nearly three dozen witnesses during the trial, including Gates, Manafort’s former associate who is cooperating with the government.

Five witnesses have been granted immunity to testify against Manafort.

Trump Russia Probe Manafort Protesters outside the courthouse. Source: Manuel Balce Ceneta

Mueller has indicted more than 30 people — including 26 Russians — so far in connection with his probe into whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to help get the real estate tycoon elected.

Trump has repeatedly denounced the probe as a politically motivated “witch hunt” and denied there was any collusion with Moscow to defeat Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

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

While Gates and others, including former national security advisor Michael Flynn, have pleaded guilty, Manafort has refused to strike a deal and has insisted on having his day in court.

Legal experts said Manafort may be hoping to be found not guilty — or holding out hopes of a presidential pardon.

Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, said the odds are stacked heavily against the former A-list political operative.

“Mueller only has to secure one conviction on one count to put Manafort away for as much as a decade,” Turley said. “At 69, that must weigh heavily on his mind.”

Turley also said “jurors are not likely to identify or empathise with Paul Manafort,” whose lavish spending and lifestyle is outlined in court documents.

Manafort may be “playing a pardon strategy,” he said.

“He may feel that he doesn’t have much to lose in going to trial and preserving his chances for a pardon,” he said. “If he cooperates with Mueller, a pardon is going to be substantially reduced in likelihood.”

Manafort has spent the past month in prison after having his house arrest revoked by a federal judge for allegedly tampering with witnesses in another pending case.

He is scheduled to go on trial in September on separate charges brought by Mueller of conspiracy, money laundering and failing to register as an agent of a foreign government.

© AFP 2018

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