The defense for President Trump’s former campaign chairman told a federal judge in the District that Manafort “has become an unwilling player in the larger drama” between Trump and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and asserted that nowhere are potential jurors more biased against him than in the District because of its partisan makeup and saturation of political news.
“This may be the rare case where a juror’s predisposition may directly tie to their vote in the last presidential election,” Manafort’s attorneys wrote, arguing that “it is not a stretch to expect” that Trump voters would look less favorably on Mueller’s inquiry of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Jury selection in Manafort’s trial in the District is set to begin Sept. 17, and the trial is scheduled to start Sept. 24.
Manafort’s lawyers said that “intensely negative” news coverage reached new heights last week, when a federal jury in Alexandria convicted him on eight of 18 tax and bank fraud charges brought by Mueller’s prosecutors.
Also Wednesday, prosecutors faced a deadline in Virginia set by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III to declare whether they would retry Manafort on the 10 counts on which the Alexandria jury couldn’t agree. The judge declared a mistrial on those counts. But prosecutors asked Ellis for more time to make their decision, noting that Manafort’s attorneys haven’t filed their post-trial motions and Ellis hasn’t ruled on them, which could change how many of Manafort’s convictions stand.
The prosecutors asked Ellis to extend the date for their decision to one week after the judge rules on Manafort’s post-trial rulings and said Manafort’s lawyers did not object to the time extension. Ellis on Thursday agreed to the extension.
The venue request in the District resurfaced many of the defense arguments raised earlier in Virginia, where Ellis had ruled that there was no evidence that jurors in Northern Virginia were biased and said that Manafort was not entitled to a completely ignorant jury or one with as many Republicans as Democrats.
Media attention had not risen to the “carnival or circus atmosphere,” Ellis said July 17.
After the trial, the one juror who spoke to news outlets said she was a Trump supporter and had thought that Manafort should have been convicted on all counts.
In the District, Manafort, 69, has pleaded not guilty to all charges, which relate to his political work and alleged attempts to hide income from 2006 to 2017. Prosecutors contend that during that time, he laundered $30 million as a consultant for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.
At a hearing Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the District set arguments on Manafort’s motion to change the trial site for Sept. 5, but she repeated Ellis’s skepticism.
“You can file what you want to file. I won’t prejudge it,” she said, while adding, “This court has heard high-profile cases before. We have been able to find impartial jurors” through questionnaires and routine pretrial vetting of potential jurors.
In their filing to Jackson, Manafort attorneys Kevin M. Downing, Thomas E. Zehnle and Richard W. Westling renewed arguments they made in Alexandria.
They said the federal courthouse in the District draws from a jury pool whose voters heavily favored Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, 91 percent to 4 percent.
By contrast, they said, the Roanoke area of the western district of Virginia favored Trump over Clinton, 63 percent to 37 percent.
“It is difficult, if not impossible, to divorce the issues in this case from the political views of potential jurors,” they said, adding, “A fair trial will be impossible without a change of venue to a more neutral and less media saturated locale such as Roanoke, Virginia.”
Because many in rural Virginia lack broadband Internet access and the media market is much smaller, Manafort’s attorneys also argue that potential jurors around Roanoke have not been immersed in news about the case, as Northern Virginians have.
Manafort’s defense team said that upholding their client’s right to a fair trial grew harder last week, saying a Google search for news articles about “Paul Manafort Conviction” resulted in 2,510,000 results in the eight days since the Virginia verdict.
“Nowhere in the country is the bias against Mr. Manafort more apparent than here in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area,” they wrote. “The phrase ‘inside-the-Beltway’ was coined to capture the area’s preoccupation with all things political.”