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Manafort's Trial Continues


Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is back in federal court tomorrow facing charges of bank and tax fraud. It's the first trial in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference and possible collusion. Last week, prosecutors gave us a peek into Manafort's lavish lifestyle - actually, a peek into his closet full of custom suits and an ostrich leather jacket. His accountant later testified that she altered financial documents for Manafort.

This week, the prosecution is expected to call its star witness, Rick Gates, Manafort's business partner who served as deputy to Manafort when he ran the Trump campaign. To look ahead to the proceedings, we were joined in the studio earlier today by defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Shan Wu. We should note he represented Rick Gates at one point. I asked Shan Wu how he thinks Gates will come across on the witness stand this week.

SHAN WU: I should say at the outset, Don, that anything I talk about is not based on confidential information or anything attorney-client privileged. Of course, it's all based on public information. I think he'll be a very tough witness to cross-examine. I think he'll be hard to rattle. I mean, his credibility is completely at stake. I think he'll come across well. And I don't think it's breaching any attorney-client confidences to say that it's well known his taste does not run towards ostrich leather.

GONYEA: So what does the prosecution need Gates to say to really make its case? Why is he the star witness?

WU: They're really saying he is at the centerpiece. He is to blame - in fact, that Manafort might not even have known (laughter) what was going on. And, for that reason, you'll see from last week's testimony that was elicited by the prosecution that they're really having the witnesses talk about how Gates and Manafort are really one and the same - that they're completely joined at the hip. The defense, now, in order to make their strategy of saying Gates is to blame - they need to pry those two apart. They need to show that they were separate. Gates could have been doing things Manafort didn't know about.

GONYEA: We've been watching for a week. I want to ask you about Judge T.S. Ellis. He was pretty hard on the prosecution in those first few days. They were bringing out example after example of Manafort's opulent lifestyle, and the judge said, in effect, hey, it's not a crime to buy a lot of luxury goods. How should we interpret Judge Ellis' remarks and his demeanor at this point?

WU: Well, I've been before Judge Ellis, and he's very powerful in the courtroom. He really controls it very well. I think what he is doing here is he's actually trying to protect his record. He wants to make sure that, if there is a conviction, that, on appeal, there won't be a question of the prosecution having dwelled so much on the lavishness of the Manafort lifestyle that it could, in the judge's words, quote, engender resentment. And so he's being careful to protect that record.

He is, of course, known for moving at a lightning-fast pace - it's the rocket docket, they call it that. And the pace is really quite unbelievable. I mean, the fact that they've gotten through so much in such a short time places actually a lot of strain on both sides. I think, for the prosecution, they definitely would have liked to spend more time on the lavishness of the lifestyle, in part to build the foundation for the motivation to be greedy, to hide more money. But Judge Ellis definitely cut them short on that, and they've been forced to move into really the nuts and bolts of a fraud case, which is the documents.

GONYEA: We've said and we've heard over and over that this case is not about Russian collusion. It's about bank and tax fraud. And I'm wondering, though, is there any way that it can possibly help Robert Mueller build a case toward Russian collusion - especially given that, you know, Manafort made so much of his money working for a pro-Russian politician in Ukraine?

WU: I think there are a couple ways that it does factor in significantly to Mueller's investigation. First, of course, the pressure and the leverage on Manafort could ultimately still cause him to want to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. That's number one. The second way is, because of his own business dealings and history in the Ukraine and with Russia, it kind of adds an atmospheric that people very close to Trump had those sorts of connections. And, in that sense, it somewhat forces Mueller's folks to continue to dig because the - for lack of a better word, the circumstantial evidence appears so compelling that you really need to make sure you're looking under every stone to make sure you haven't missed something.

GONYEA: That's Shan Wu, defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. Thanks so much for speaking to us.

WU: Oh, thank you for having me here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.