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The Mueller Investigation Is Now on Trial, Too

During closing arguments in Paul Manafort’s case, credibility was the key question

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill following a closed door meeting, in WashingtonCongress Russia Probe, Washington, USA - 21 Jun 2017

Special Counsel Robert Mueller

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ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — For the past two weeks, the trial in the case of United States of America v. Paul J. Manafort Jr. has played out inside a courtroom sealed off from the outside world. Phones and laptops are not permitted in the Albert V. Bryan Courthouse in suburban Virginia. There is no Twitter. Journalists covering the trial take notes by hand and file their updates via pay phone or by running outside the courthouse to find WiFi before dashing back inside again. As one columnist put it, the Manafort trial “may be one of the most Trump-free spaces on the planet at the moment.”

The main players in this daily drama — Judge T.S. Ellis III, the lawyers representing Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Manafort’s team of defense attorneys — have had their own reasons for preserving this insular existence. Ellis made it clear from the outset that he did not want the trial devolving into a politically charged circus. The government’s charges against Manafort largely cover the period from 2010 to 2014, predating his stint as President Trump’s campaign chairman. And Manafort’s own lawyers surely saw no benefit in highlighting their client’s connections to Trump before a group of jurors who live in a place that broke heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Now, after 12 long days, the trial is nearly over. Just before 10 a.m. Thursday, the jurors left the courtroom and began their secret deliberations over whether Manafort is innocent or guilty of the 18 counts related to tax and bank fraud brought by Mueller. (Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.)

The closing arguments delivered Wednesday only underscored the curious nature — and massive stakes — of this case. There was little, if any, mention of Donald Trump, Russia, oligarchs or election interference. But there were discussions about whether Mueller’s office had overstepped its bounds by bringing these specific financial charges against Manafort. It was a line of argument that served as a reminder: A win or loss will equally affect the credibility of the Mueller investigation, its ability to carry on its work and the public’s reception of its eventual findings.

This was a case about documents, to hear lead prosecutor Greg Andres tell it, a textbook example of following the money. That paper trail, Andres reminded the jurors, was “littered with lies.” Lie, lied and liar: this was the vocabulary of Andres’ nearly two-hour closing argument. “Mr. Manafort lied to keep more money when he had it,” he said, “and he lied to get it when he didn’t.”

Andres sought to address any concern that Rick Gates, Manafort’s former colleague and protégé turned star witness for the prosecution, was not to be trusted. “We’re not asking you to trust each and every word Mr. Gates said,” Andres began. “We’re not asking you to like him.” But he should be believed, Andres told the jurors, because so much of what Gates testified when it came to overseas bank accounts and allegedly false tax returns was backed up by the prosecution’s mountain of evidence.

The evidence, Andres argued, showed that Manafort had controlled the 31 overseas bank accounts in question and not reported them to the IRS. It showed he’d failed to report all of his income over a span of several years to avoid higher taxes. And it showed that he’d lied about his income and his homes and the financial health of his failing consulting firm to secure loans that would prop up his extravagant lifestyle. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Andres said, “the star witness in this case is the documents.”

The burden of proof is high for Mueller’s team, and Manafort’s lawyers set out to muddy the waters just enough to convince the jury that “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” had not been proven. Richard Westling, one of Manafort’s attorneys, displayed an image that looked like a thermometer and used it to make the point that “possibly,” “probably,” “likely” or “even highly likely guilty” were not sufficient to convict. It was an elementary shtick, sure, but it was hard not to watch and think that it had served its purpose.

With that image in the minds of the jurors, Westling argued that Mueller’s lawyers had failed to show criminal intent by Manafort. He may have given false information or statements, but had he intended to commit crimes? Nothing in the prosecution’s evidence, Westling insisted, had proven that to be the case.

Kevin Downing, another one of Manafort’s lawyers, used his allotted time to yet again attack Gates and urge the jury to discount his testimony: “To the very end, he lied to you.” And this time, Downing took aim both at Gates and at Mueller’s team, arguing that Gates’ plea agreement underscored the weakness of the government’s case. “The government, so desperate to make a case against Mr. Manafort, made a deal with Rick Gates,” he said, later adding: “How he was able to get the deal he got, I have no idea.”

That line of thinking was similar to something Westling had said earlier, suggesting overreach or overzealousness by Mueller. “Nobody came forward to say, ‘We’re concerned about what we’re seeing here,’ not until the special counsel showed up and started asking questions,” Westling said.

Listening to the closing arguments, it was hard not to feel that the Mueller investigation, in its own way, was also on trial. How this case is decided will go a long way toward shaping the future of the Special Counsel, the Russia scandal and the Trump presidency.

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