Manafort defense rests without calling witnesses

Attorneys for one-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort rested their case Tuesday without calling any witnesses or presenting any further evidence to defend their client, who faces charges of tax evasion and bank fraud that could land him in prison for decades.

Manafort briefly spoke in the courtroom without the jury present, saying he did not wish to testify on his own behalf.

It’s the first time Manafort has been heard in the trial, which is in its third week.

The surprise decision by the defense came after federal prosecutors spent more than two weeks seeking to prove to the jury that Manafort hid money from the IRS and submitted false documents to obtain bank loans.

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Manafort’s defense argued the main witness against him, his former aide Richard Gates, is an untrustworthy witness who stole money from Manafort and was involved in extramarital affairs.

Gates was indicted alongside Manafort but pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for testifying against his former boss.

The trial marks the first courtroom test for special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s probe, but has little to do with the Trump campaign.

Manafort faces a total of 18 criminal counts — five of tax fraud, four of failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts, and nine counts of bank fraud and bank fraud conspiracy.

He could get 10 years in prison for the tax fraud charges alone based on the level of the offense and his criminal history, federal prosecutors said in a February court filing.

The trial will resume Wednesday morning with closing arguments. 

The move by the defense left many wondering if Manafort's attorneys think they have injected enough doubt into the case to secure a not guilty verdict or if Manafort is planning to make a deal with prosecutors.

“It’s a high-risk strategy,” said Joshua Dressler, a law professor at Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. “I think at this point the defense’s goal or hope has to be that a combination of their cross examination of Gates plus a powerful closing argument can create reasonable doubt in the mind of at least one juror to get a hung jury.”

Procedurally, a plea deal is possible up until the moment the jury has reached a verdict, but Dressler said prosecutors may not be willing to offer anything worth taking at this point. 

“I think any attractive plea deal has got to be gone by now,” he said, noting the time and money prosecutors have spent putting on their case.  

The most dramatic part of the day was when Judge T.S. Ellis III asked whether Manafort wanted to testify on his own behalf.

After Manafort’s attorney said that his client did not wish to testify, Ellis explained that Manafort has a constitutional right to remain silent and if he chose to do so, the jury would be instructed not to discuss it.

The jury was not present in the courtroom as Ellis addressed Manafort directly, asking him a series of questions about whether he had discussed his decision with his attorneys and was satisfied with their counsel.

“I have, your honor,” Manafort said in response to the first question. “I am, your honor,” he replied to the second.

“Do you wish to testify?” Ellis then asked. 

“No, sir,” Manafort said standing at the podium between federal prosecutors and his defense team.

Federal prosecutors and Manafort’s attorneys spent time later in the day coming to an agreement on how the jury will be instructed before deliberations begin.    

The two sides are set to offer closing arguments on Wednesday.

Ellis said he didn’t want to break up the closing remarks offered by the prosecution and the defense, which will be the last opportunity for each side to make their case for Manafort’s guilt or innocence.

Attorneys on both sides have said they want two hours to summarize their arguments, but Ellis asked if they could shorten those remarks to an hour and a half each.

“It’s very hard for any juror to pay attention for two straight hours,” he said

In front of a crowded courtroom Tuesday, Ellis said he will not be providing the 12-member jury with written instructions, but will give them a recording of the instructions he relays in court, which they will be free to replay during their deliberations.

The 11th day of the trial kicked off with a delay after Ellis sealed the courtroom off from the public for more than two hours while the parties argued over a sealed motion.

When the courtroom opened shortly after 11:30 a.m., Ellis quickly denied a request from the defense to toss out four of the charges — two counts of tax fraud and two counts of bank fraud — relating to a loan application Manafort submitted to the Federal Savings Bank.

The defense argued the evidence federal prosecutors presented at trial was “insufficient to sustain conviction” because the government “failed to prove the required element of materiality for these charges.”

On Friday, a former bank employee testified that CEO Stephen Calk had helped Manafort secure $16 million in loans from the bank because he wanted a Cabinet-level position in the Trump administration, according to news reports. Evidence prosecutors released Monday included a redacted email Manafort sent to Trump's son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerMueller investigating Russian payments made by Trump Tower meeting organizers: report The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil Manafort’s plea deal — the clear winners and losers MORE in which he recommended Calk to be the Secretary of the Army.

Ellis said the issue of materiality is for the jury to decide.