Paul Manafort’s lawyers rested their case without allowing their client to take the stand and without presenting a single witness. Defense counsel Kevin Downing gave the formulaic explanation for declining to put on any case: “Mr. Manafort just rested his case, and he did so because he and his legal team believe that the government has not met its burden of proof.” While every defendant is intended the presumption of innocence, the mound of documentary evidence and parade of witnesses in this case sure seemed to fulfill the prosecutors’ burden of proof. But the jury will have its say.
We can speculate as to why Manafort even went to trial. Perhaps he’s expecting a pardon. However, now that the public has gotten a good look at the financial machinations and opulent lifestyle of his former campaign chairman, would President Trump risk the political hit by pardoning him? (Remember there is another trial coming up in Washington in September.) It’s one thing to know intellectually that one could be convicted, but quite another to hear an adverse verdict and get a prison sentence.
What can we learn from the proceedings to this point?
First, Trump declaring a trial a “witch hunt” or unfair, or vouching for the character of an ex-staffer tells us nothing about the strength of the case or the actual character of the defendant. The president operates in a fact-free and lawless universe, one in which any proceeding that implicates either him or his inner circle is by definition a “witch hunt.” Trump likely had no idea what the facts of the Manafort case were (the public sure didn’t), or understanding of the laws implicated. Keep this in mind with regard to his pronouncements regarding the Russia investigation and any cases stemming from that. Trump is about the least-reliable person one could ask for an accurate assessment of someone’s legal exposure. And that includes possible cases against the president himself.
Second, the general public, as noted above, knows a fraction of the evidence prosecutors have collected before they put on their case. The same is true of potential conspiracy and/or obstruction charges against Trump, his family and top advisers. In particular, the mound of financial documents in the Manafort case was staggering, and that evidence was confirmed by more witnesses who are not household names (at least not before the trial). Keep that in mind when Trump’s sycophants say there is “no evidence” of anything.
Third, prosecutors know all about burden of proof. They aren’t going to file charges or go to trial unless they have lots and lots of evidence. (Remember all those indictments obtained by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III?) They rarely rely on a single document or a single witness — especially if that witness is vulnerable on cross-examination. The notion that Trump will be able to invalidate a carefully crafted case against him, for example, by smearing an FBI agent (e.g., Peter Strzok) who left early in the investigation, and whose work was confirmed by others, is downright silly. The president also has been trying to discredit former FBI director James B. Comey from the beginning, but the amount of evidence that supports Comey’s recollection may be just as impressive as the case brought by Manafort’s prosecutors.
Fourth, PR arguments and political spin (Not fair! What about . . . ?) have zero weight in court. Manafort cannot avoid prison time by saying the government didn’t catch all tax cheats. (So-called “selective prosecution” defenses are available in very narrow circumstances and rarely succeed.) Likewise, defendants in other cases are going to have to face the pros and cons of taking the stand (where their credibility may be shredded) and putting on witnesses whose own integrity is suspect.
Fifth, understanding that the facts and the law are not favorable to Trump, his legal team seems more inclined these days to fall back on far-fetched constitutional pleas — e.g., a president cannot obstruct justice — or baseless allegations against prosecutors. (The political affiliation of prosecutors is irrelevant in a trial so long as they are credible and have the goods; absent any showing of political bias, it’s far from clear Trump or his cohorts’ lawyers would even get to raise the point.) And remember, legal arguments about possible prosecution only relate to prosecution in office; there’s zero bar for prosecuting him the moment a new president is sworn in.
In sum, when you see a real trial conducted by professional, experienced prosecutors, you realize the disadvantage Trump and/or others in his administration may face if cases are brought against them. The prosecutors will come armed with a mountain of evidence and the Trumpers will cry “Unfair!” (How’s that working out for Manafort?) Once we move to a venue in which facts do matter, and Sean Hannity doesn’t get to dismiss out of hand whatever bad facts come up, Trump and his inner circle may find themselves like Manafort — defenseless.