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Manafort trial poses first courtroom test for Mueller

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortFormer Trump lawyer: Mueller probe is not a witch hunt Manafort appears in wheelchair at court hearing Manafort to be sentenced in Virginia in February MORE's criminal trial on bank and tax fraud charges begins Tuesday, marking an initial courtroom test for special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s team of lawyers and investigators.

The trial promises to be an explosive affair, with Manafort facing allegations he laundered $30 million from work on behalf of pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians and then stashed money overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes.

It’s the first trial stemming from Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign, but it will also be strangely separate from the Russia controversies that have shadowed President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report Trump to nominate former Monsanto exec to top Interior position White House aides hadn’t heard of Trump's new tax cut: report MORE since the day he took office.

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Judge T.S. Ellis, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, rejected Manafort’s argument that the charges against him are outside the scope of Mueller’s mandated Russia investigation, but he also warned lawyers against referencing collusion or other related matters that could prejudice the jurors, according to The New York Times.

Ellis said in May that he thought Mueller was pursuing charges against Manafort just to build a prosecution or impeachment case against the president, CNN reported.

If prosecutors secure a conviction — even on just a few of the 18 counts against Manafort — it will be seen as a preliminary victory for an investigation that has led to the indictment of 32 people, with more potentially on the way.

Mueller is planning to call 35 witnesses. The list includes names ranging from Richard Gates, who was indicted alongside Manafort but pleaded guilty, to Democratic operative Tad Devin, who served as Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersHarris presses young people to vote early in Iowa trip Dems lower expectations for 'blue wave' Election Countdown: Takeaways from heated Florida governor's debate | DNC chief pushes back on 'blue wave' talk | Manchin faces progressive backlash | Trump heads to Houston rally | Obama in Las Vegas | Signs of huge midterm turnout MORE’s (I-Vt.) chief strategist when he ran for president in 2016.

Prosecutors are planning to present a trove of documentation to prove Manafort is guilty, and Ellis has agreed to grant immunity to five witnesses.

As the courtroom drama unfolds, there is likely to be plenty of speculation about whether Manafort is still in a position to strike a deal with prosecutors in exchange for information on Trump or other Trump associates.

While he’s signaled he’s not interested in a deal, legal experts say that could still change. Ellis said in March that Manafort faces the very real possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison, according to ABC News.

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University professor of law and contributor to The Hill, said Manafort may not be able to negotiate a deal with Mueller since the former campaign chairman is the first person in the probe to be put on trial.

“Manafort is in the unfortunate position of being the matinee defendant in the Mueller investigation,” he said. “He’s the highest figure to be indicted, with the exception of Michael Flynn, but Flynn’s was a small charge of making false statements.”

“He has to bring serious deliverables to the table to reach a deal,” Turley said.

Manafort is also facing a trial in September in Washington, D.C., on separate federal charges brought by Mueller, which include conspiring to defraud the government and launder money, making false statement to federal officials, and failing to disclose he was acting as a political consultant and lobbyist for now-former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the political party Yanukovych led and the party that took over after Yanukovych fled to Russia in 2014.

Manafort so far appears to be holding out for a presidential pardon, according to Turley.

“Manafort seems to have stuck with this pardon strategy that Michael Cohen recently abandoned,” he said, referring to Trump's former personal lawyer who is under investigation by federal prosecutors in New York. “Manafort has refused to cooperate with Mueller and has refrained from attacking the president.”

But Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Mueller in the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C., said there might be other reasons Manafort isn't working with federal prosecutors.

“It may be he’s scared of the Russians. Look what they’ve done to others who have crossed them,” he said, alluding to an ex-Russian spy and his daughter who were poisoned in the U.K. earlier this year, poisonings which Western intelligence sources have said were carried out by Russia.

“This isn’t spy novel fiction,” Kirschner added. “If he cooperates with the government, the Russians might go after his family.”

Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and former deputy assistant attorney general who now works for the law firm Constantine Cannon LLP, said while it’s unclear why Manafort hasn’t cooperated with prosecutors, he should have flipped a long time ago.

“Is he irrational, is he hoping for a pardon, does he fear the Russians more than he fears Trump? We really don’t know,” Litman said.

Trump, meanwhile, has been relentless in attacking Mueller and his investigation, calling it a “rigged witch hunt” on Twitter and repeatedly saying there’s “no collusion.”

If Manafort is acquitted that could bolster Trump's claims, according to Litman, though court watchers say escaping a guilty verdict on all charges seems unlikely.

The trial, which is expected to last three weeks, begins Tuesday with jury selection. The pool of potential jurors was narrowed last week to 43, down from the 73 who appeared in court.