Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort is on trial for fraud. His defense: “Blame my number two”

Government lawyer Uzo Asonye accused Manafort of putting “himself and his money above the law.”
Government lawyer Uzo Asonye accused Manafort of putting “himself and his money above the law.”
Image: Dana Verkouteren via AP
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Alexandria, Virginia

Paul Manafort faced charges of tax fraud and bank fraud today, in the first major trial of US probe into Russia’s 2016 election meddling. The former Trump campaign chair’s defense strategy quickly became clear: Blame my number two.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team have lined up Manafort’s former right-hand-man, Rick Gates, as a star witness, and Manafort’s lawyer Thomas Zehnle immediately set about trying to discredit him. He painted a narrative of Manafort running a high-paced political campaign in Ukraine, while trusting Gates with the business’s finances. Earlier this year, Gates became a government witness, pleading guilty to lying to the FBI and taking a reduced sentence in exchange for information about Manafort and the Trump campaign.

The attacks came hard and fast:

“Little did Paul [Manafort] know that Rick Gates was lining his own pockets,” Zehnle said, alleging that Gates had claimed fake bonuses.

“Rick Gates had his hand in the cookie jar,” he said, claiming that the people submitting Manafort’s taxes weren’t given the “full story” of the firm’s finances because Gates was worried Manafort would find out about his alleged scheme. This, he suggested, is why there were errors on Manafort’s tax forms.

In the government’s opening statement, prosecutor Uzo Asonye warned jurors that these attacks would come. He said Gates’s testimony was just one element of the government’s case against Manafort, which cites hundreds of documents of evidence, including wire transfer forms and emails.

Asonye depicted Manafort as a would-be plutocrat doing everything he could to avoid the rules that govern most citizens.“A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him. Not tax, not banking law,” he told the jury. Gates, by contrast, was passingly referred to as one of Manafort’s “underlings.”