Lawyers for Paul Manafort rested their case Tuesday without calling any witnesses, bringing a swift end to the evidence stage of his tax- and bank-fraud trial, which legal analysts say appears stacked against President Trump’s former campaign chairman.
Doing so can also send a signal to jurors that the burden of proving a crime rests with the prosecution and defendants don’t have to prove their innocence. The Manafort trial is the first to arise out of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, although the charges against the political strategist center on his personal finances.
Manafort, 69, spoke briefly in court Tuesday, confirming to U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III that he did not wish to testify.
Wearing a dark suit and white shirt, Manafort stood at the lectern in court as the judge formally asked him his intentions.
“Do you wish to testify?” Ellis asked.
“No, sir,’’ Manafort replied.
The move by Manafort’s defense team means the jury of six women and six men in Alexandria, Va., is slated to hear closing arguments on Wednesday morning and could begin deliberating later that day.
Deliberations could take some time because Manafort faces 18 counts of tax and bank fraud, based in large part on the technical details of IRS forms and bank loan applications. Prosecutors say the defendant hid millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts from the IRS and lied to banks to get millions more in loans. Convictions on the more serious charges could send him to prison for the rest of his life.
Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor, called it “no surprise” that the defense chose not to call witnesses — and another indication that Manafort is set on an all-or-nothing strategy of trying to convince jurors that the star witness, Manafort’s former right-hand man, Rick Gates, is too unreliable.
“It signals Manafort’s defense team intends to argue that the testimony of Rick Gates is so riddled with lies and self-dealing criminal conduct that it should raise a reasonable doubt in the mind of jurors as to the guilt of their client,” said Mintz, who added that calling defense witnesses — including potentially Manafort himself — could undercut that strategy.
Gates pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and conspiring against the United States and said he hoped his testimony against his former boss would earn him a lesser prison sentence for those crimes.
Manafort’s attorneys have told the jurors that Gates, not Manafort, was responsible for any criminal acts and that they should not trust a liar who admitted marital infidelity as well as stealing from Manafort.
“By taking the stand, Manafort had little to gain and a lot to lose,” Mintz said. “If Manafort had chosen to testify, he rather than Gates would have been the critical testimony presented at trial and would have given the government the chance to refocus the jury on Manafort.”
Gates’s testimony portrayed Manafort as a man who repeatedly lied to maintain a lifestyle of multimillion-dollar homes and expensive suits. Manafort’s former bookkeeper and accountants also testified against him, detailing instances in which they say Manafort lied to them to lower his tax bill.
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who now works in private practice in Chicago, said a conviction on at least some of the counts seemed likely, given the trial evidence. “These are paper cases, and it’s about the bank records, loan applications, income tax returns and emails,” Cotter said. “The side with the best paper usually wins, and in this case, all the paper is on the prosecution’s side, and there’s almost no paper on the defense side.”
Cotter also expressed skepticism that a “blame Gates” strategy had much hope of success for Manafort.
“I don’t think jurors would throw away all the paper because Gates cheated on his wife,” he said. “I once prosecuted a case where we put on a witness who killed 19 people, and the jury had no problem whatsoever convicting the defendant. . . . Barring some weird scenario, I don’t think there’s much chance for Mr. Manafort.”
There is one ongoing mystery in the trial. On Tuesday, the judge held a third day of sealed discussions with prosecutors and defense attorneys about an unknown subject, though there were some indications that it could involve the jury.
The judge has spent hours in those discussions with the lawyers, and a defense motion was filed under seal Monday, prompting a sealed response from the government. The judge has said that the sealed matter will become public once the trial is over.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the jurors were called back into the courtroom, where they heard Manafort’s attorneys rest their case.
Manafort looked at the jury as his lead attorney, Kevin Downing, said they wouldn’t present any evidence. Most of the jurors looked at the judge as he instructed them to return Wednesday morning and not discuss the case, but at least one juror stared back at Manafort.
Whatever the jury ultimately decides about Manafort’s fate, he faces a second trial next month in Washington on charges that he failed to register as a lobbyist for a foreign government and conspired to tamper with witnesses in that case.
Tom Jackman contributed to this report.