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Manafort Trial: Lies, Affairs, Embezzlement as Star Witness Testimony Unfolds

The battle of Paul Manafort vs. his former protege, Rick Gates, is getting ugly

Rick Gates, a longtime protégé and junior partner of Donald Trump's presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort, leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse in Washington, Feb. 23, 2018. Gates, who was indicted by the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, pleaded guilty on Friday, a move that signals he is cooperating with the investigation. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Rick Gates

Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Redux

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s case against Paul Manafort, the once-mighty political fixer and ex-chairman of President Trump’s 2016 campaign, rests in large part on four words. On Day 6 of the blockbuster trial, the jury heard those words uttered by Mueller’s star witness, Rick Gates: “At Mr. Manafort’s direction.”

Mueller’s lawyers on Tuesday finished their two-day direct examination of Gates, Manafort’s former colleague who has been cooperating with the government since February. They have built their case methodically, attempting to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Gates did only what Manafort told him to do. Gates testified that he drafted phony loan agreements, provided false tax information to Manafort’s accountants and helped Manafort allegedly doctor a company profit-and-loss statement to inflate his income in order to qualify for a loan. But the government insists, if bank fraud and tax evasion crimes were committed, it was because Manafort ordered his onetime protégé to participate in those crimes as their firm, DMP International, imploded.

After a short afternoon break, Kevin Downing, one of Manafort’s defense attorneys, began his cross-examination of Gates — arguably the most high-stakes portion of the entire trial. Dozens of journalists, self-described “court enthusiasts” and onlookers filled every inch of seating in the courtroom gallery and an overflow room three floors below. Manafort’s attorneys had previewed their defense strategy last week during opening statements. They said it was Gates, not Manafort, who masterminded these alleged crimes. If the success of Mueller’s case rests on whether the 12 jurors (six men, six women) believe Gates, Downing set out to depict him as a liar and a crook who can’t be trusted.

A former Justice Department prosecutor and tax expert, Downing is built like a tight end and wasted no time bulldozing Gates over his supposed lies to government investigators during his 20-odd interviews with federal authorities over the past two years.

“When did you start providing false and misleading information to the Special Counsel’s office?” Downing demanded of Gates.

Gates turned defensive, denying any accusations of lying. When Downing tried to pin him down on specific examples of lies he’d told the government, Gates replied by saying he couldn’t recall saying those things or by challenging the facts of Downing’s questions. But there were several instances — including when asked about his conversations with federal prosecutors — when Gates reversed or corrected himself. He clarified that there were instances in which he said he “struggled to get all the information out, to some extent.” (One of the counts Gates pled guilty to was making false statements to the FBI.)

He was just as resistant when Downing shifted his questioning into Gates’ alleged financial crimes. Downing repeatedly asked Gates about the money he had stolen from Manafort over the years the two men worked together. Gates had previously testified that he took “several hundred-thousand” dollars from Manafort with fake expense reports, and he referred back to his earlier testimony when Downing pushed him for more details. “I already admitted to taking unauthorized funds from Mr. Manafort,” Gates said.

But Downing pushed on with his bruising cross-examination. He asked whether Gates had repaid Manafort for the money he took — no, he hadn’t — and all but demanded Gates own up to those crimes.

“Why won’t you say embezzlement?” Downing asked.

“What difference does it make?” Gates replied.

“Why won’t you say embezzlement?”

“It was embezzlement from Mr. Manafort.”

And in the most tense exchange of the day, Downing brought up a decade-old extramarital affair. “There was another Richard Gates, isn’t that right?” Downing asked. “A secret Richard Gates?” He went on, “As part of your secret life, did you maintain a flat — is that what you call it — in London?”

Downing presented Gates with documents that he claimed showed that Gates had allegedly paid for his London apartment and his affair with money taken from Manafort.

“Are these payments for your secret life?” Downing asked. Gates denied that they were, but said he regretted having embezzled from Manafort.

“It was a difficult time…I was living beyond what I should have,” he said.

All of these questions — about the affair, the embezzlement, the lies  — were designed with a single purpose in mind: to convince the jury that Rick Gates lacked credibility, yhat he couldn’t be trusted. “After all the lies you’ve told and the fraud you’ve committed,” Downing asked near the end of the day, “you expect this jury to believe you?”

“Yes,” Gates replied without hesitation. “I’m here to tell the truth,” he said. “Mr. Manafort had the same path. I’m here.”

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