At Next Manafort Trial, Oligarchs Are In and Infidelity Is Out

(Bloomberg) -- Paul Manafort’s second trial will reprise many of the themes from his previous one in Alexandria, Virginia, where a jury convicted the former Trump campaign chairman of bank and tax fraud. But with U.S. prosecutors facing a new judge with her own ground rules, expect the sequel to unfold differently.

In the Washington trial, oligarchs are allowed but a witness’s marital infidelity is not. Also out is any discussion of the full scope of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Wednesday was irrelevant and prejudicial to Manafort’s defense.

Manafort faces seven felony counts including conspiracy to launder money, failure to register as a foreign agent for a Ukrainian political party and witness tampering. Some of the evidence underlying those charges was also seen or heard in the Alexandria trial.

Rick Gates, Manafort’s former right-hand man, who cooperated with prosecutors and testified against his former boss last month, may or may not take the stand again, prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told Jackson at a hearing on Wednesday.

On cross-examination at the prior trial, Manafort’s lawyers exploited Gates’s admitted marital infidelity to sow doubts in jurors’ minds about his trustworthiness. Jackson said that while she didn’t believe the subject had been raised inappropriately, she nevertheless barred it from being a topic of discussion in the trial before her.

“I do not believe this evidence is relevant to his credibility,” she said.

Similarly, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who presided over the Alexandria trial, barred both sides from using the term “oligarch” because he said it had negative connotations that jurors might attach to Manafort. Jackson, by contrast, said lawyers could use the term, provided that they agree on a definition for it.

“I don’t think we should leave it up to the understanding of the average juror,” she said.

Jackson on Wednesday also denied a motion by the defense to move the trial to Roanoke, Virginia, rejecting an argument she said was based heavily on the propensity of District of Columbia residents to vote Democratic. The judge said she didn’t believe that was a lawful basis for a change of venue or a predictor of bias. Still, she left the door open for Manafort’s lawyers to ask again, should seating a jury prove more difficult than anticipated.

Jackson, who joked that she’d be open to moving the proceedings to Hawaii, also instructed prosecutors to “turn down the volume” on allegations of lavish spending by Manafort, which was on frequent display during the early part of the Alexandria trial.

Just as in the first trial, defense lawyer Kevin Downing said that his client was being prosecuted only because of his role in the Trump campaign. He cited other firms that were doing similar work during the same period -- including that of lobbyist Tony Podesta, the brother of former Democratic White House staffer John Podesta -- who haven’t been accused of wrongdoing.

Jackson said she wasn’t sure whether Downing was right about when the investigation into his client’s activities began, citing a Justice Department inquiry referred to in the indictment that predated both the 2016 election and Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. Still, she didn’t immediately rule on whether the defense can claim Manafort is a victim of selective prosecution.

The case is U.S. v. Manafort, 17-cr-201, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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