ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — This was his life now. Paul J. Manafort Jr. took his seat in Room 900 of the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, just before 9 a.m. Tuesday. The disgraced political influence-peddler and former chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign wore a dark suit and said little. He looked older. Grayer. He appeared to have aged considerably from even a mere two years ago, the summer his life began to implode.
Manafort’s team of lawyers — all men, all white — joined him at the defense’s table. A few feet away sat four Justice Department lawyers, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, readying themselves. Last year, Mueller indicted Manafort and a former colleague on 32 counts related to bank fraud and tax evasion. (Manafort has pleaded not guilty.) The indictment shook Washington — one of its biggest operatives over the past several decades had fallen.
The two legal teams spread their ringed binders and thick crim law handbooks on the tables. Then Judge T.S. Ellis III — “Tim,” in his own words — rapped his gavel and the trial began.
This was his life now.
In their opening statements, the prosecution and the defense previewed their arguments.
“A man in the courtroom believed the law did not apply to him — not the tax laws, not the banking laws,” federal prosecutor Uzo Asonye said. “That man is the defendant, Paul Manafort … Paul Manafort placed himself and his money over the law.” One of Manafort’s lawyers, Tom Zehnle, told jurors the fault lies with Manafort’s former partner, Rick Gates, who cut a plea deal with the government. “The foundation of the special counsel’s case rests squarely on the shoulders of Rick Gates,” Zehnle said. Gates “embezzled millions of dollars from his longtime employer. He abused his position of trust.”
In the summer of 2016, Manafort was on top. Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for president, had hired him to run the campaign’s delegate-corralling operation at the RNC and steer Trump through a potentially bruising floor fight in Cleveland. In that capacity, he succeeded: Trump left the convention in fine shape, nomination in hand.
The Trump campaign marked the unlikely return of one of Washington’s swampiest creatures. For decades, Manafort had epitomized a certain breed of political consultant. He traveled the world to advise private companies, candidates running for office and foreign leaders. He was especially skilled in the dark arts of airbrushing, reinventing and resuscitating the images of overseas autocrats and violent strongmen. Manafort’s client list read like a who’s who of late-20th century thugs: Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Jonas Savimbi of Angola, the leaders of the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea and Somalia. His former business partner (and fellow denizen of Trumpworld) Roger Stone put it best, in reference to their former lobbying firm: “Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly lined up most of the dictators of the world we could find … Dictators are in the eye of the beholder.”
Manafort left the firm he founded in the mid-’90s but found plenty of work on his own. He flew first-class and stayed in luxury hotels as he criss-crossed the world in the service of scandal-plagued politicians and causes. But it was Manafort’s work for one of those clients, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, that eventually caught up with him.
Federal prosecutors allege that, as far as back 2006, Manafort and his onetime associate Rick Gates hid more than $30 million they’d received from Ukrainian oligarchs and the Ukrainian government for their work on behalf of Yanukovych and Yanukovych’s pro-Russia political party. When the money dried up after Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014, he allegedly resorted to various forms of financial fraud — submitting false tax returns, committing bank fraud and failing to report overseas bank accounts — to keep that lifestyle going, according to the indictment filed by Mueller.
In June, Manafort’s lawyers fought the charges, arguing that they related to actions that predated the Trump campaign and thus fall outside the bounds of Mueller’s investigation. Judge Ellis showed some openness to that line of argument, but he later ruled in favor of Mueller. The government’s lawyers had “followed the money paid by pro-Russian officials,” he wrote in a ruling. The case could proceed.
There is always something jarring about the first day of a big trial. For all the lurid details and allegations accompanying the case, the proceedings could fairly be described as a snooze. A pool of some 60 potential jury members — men, women, middle-aged, elderly, mostly white — filed into Ellis’ courtroom around 10 in the morning. Mueller’s and Manafort’s lawyers spent the bulk of the day whittling down the list of potential jurors to 12. They’re twelve souls who, as Judge Ellis instructed them, can’t speak a word about the trial to family or friends, can’t read coverage of the trial, can’t Google the name “Paul Manafort.” During a lunch break, I watched one of the new jurors order a pack of Marlboro Golds with his turkey sandwich. Who could blame him?
Manafort, for his part, looked ready to fight. Back in the courtroom, he huddled with his lawyers for each of the six rounds of jury selection. He licked his fingers as he flipped through the documents splayed out in front of him, a yellow legal pad in one hand. He looked busier than half the lawyers hired to defend him.
Still, Manafort’s expression was as inscrutable as ever, never betraying his thoughts and emotions, all of which were hidden behind that glower we’ve grown used to over the past two years.
This was his life now. And nobody knew what would be coming next.