No one mentioned Donald Trump. Robert S. Mueller III, either. The word “Russia” was not uttered.
On the first day of the first trial to result from the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump did not tweet about any “rigged witch hunt.” He said nothing about “13 Angry Democrats,” his biting shorthand for the prosecutors who are examining any potential ties between his campaign and Russian operatives.
Instead, on the ninth floor of the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., the first defendant to face a jury in the year-and-a-half-old investigation — Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort — looked pale as he tried to make eye contact with the just-seated, racially mixed jury of six men and six women.
He smiled wanly. The jurors did not smile back.
The nation’s inaugural look at special counsel Mueller’s team in action started with a bang. Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye, brought onto the special counsel’s staff from the Alexandria federal prosecutor’s office for this case, faced the jury and declared: “A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him.”
But Asonye’s effort to deliver a classically simple, prosecutor’s zinger of an opening got tripped up as U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III interrupted Asonye twice in his first minute, first admonishing him to steer away from bold assertions and only tell the jury what the evidence would show, then halting the prosecutor’s description of Manafort’s lavish lifestyle.
“It isn’t a crime to be profligate in your spending,” Ellis said.
With more than a dozen of his colleagues from the federal investigation alongside and behind him, Asonye recovered quickly, keeping jurors riveted through a 26-minute opening statement that portrayed Manafort as someone who lied about his taxes, his income, his business and a litany of other topics.
Mueller’s prosecutors, nearly all in dark navy-blue suits, had entered the courtroom with a studied determination. They wheeled in 10 boxes of documents on two carts. They sat among themselves before the proceedings began, trading stories about scary judges and their first year in law school.
They looked, in contrast with Manafort’s defense team, like Alexandria, the diverse Potomac riverfront suburb where the trial is being held because Manafort lives nearby. The prosecution table included Asonye, who is African American; two younger white men; and a female FBI agent.
Asonye’s synopsis of the government’s case kept most of the jurors jotting down his points in their notepads. The prosecutor, mostly reading his opening from a written text, nonetheless maintained the jury’s interest by keeping the story simple and promising that the expected three-week trial would prove that Manafort directed his staff to doctor financial records and file false tax returns in an effort to keep more of the millions he made from political consulting in Ukraine.
As Asonye reeled off Manafort’s alleged misdeeds, the defendant donned his reading glasses and took notes.
Manafort underreported his income and used the money that he didn’t pay in taxes to buy
“a $21,000 watch and a custom, $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich,” the prosecutor said, relishing every syllable spelling out the defendant’s purported excesses.
Manafort stared down at his notepad, lips pursed.
The prosecutors had waited a long time for this moment, and subtlety was not their tool of choice. “If you lie to your bookkeeper,” Asonye said, “your tax return is going to be false. Garbage in, garbage out.”
At one point, the prosecutor began five consecutive sentences with “He lied,” finally concluding that Manafort had done this lying “all in order to get and to keep money.”
By the time defense attorney Thomas Zehnle got his chance to present Manafort’s side, some jurors were visibly deflated. Four jurors who had taken notes during the government’s argument did not do so once the defense started talking.
No one in the jury box had nodded off during Asonye’s opening; two jurors seemed to take occasional rests while Zehnle spoke.
Zehnle argued that “this case is about taxes and trust.” Manafort had basically “failed to check a box” on some government forms, and he had placed “his trust in the wrong person,” his longtime business partner, Rick Gates.
Zehnle also spoke for about half an hour, but where Asonye had rattled off a list of witnesses who he said would spell out Manafort’s misdeeds, Zehnle focused largely on how it was Gates, not his client, who had done bad things. Gates, who is expected to testify, avoided trial himself by pleading guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI. Manafort’s lawyers will seek to drive a truck through Gates’s credibility, arguing that he, not Manafort, is the real liar.
If the prosecutors signaled Tuesday that they will use a scorched-earth courtroom strategy against Manafort, hoping to outrage jurors with detailed recitations of the defendant’s conspicuous consumption, the defense is also taking a traditional path, portraying Manafort not as the consummate K Street swamp-dweller but as a great American success story, “a second-generation immigrant, first in his family to go to college,” as Zehnle put it.
“There are two sides to every story,” the defense lawyer said, and the story that began to unfold in the Alexandria courtroom sounded awfully like the ones that play out in trials every day in courthouses across the land. Prosecutors painted a picture of venal behavior driven by greed and malice. Defense lawyers shaded that same set of facts as the actions of an innocent, perhaps led astray by people who did him wrong.
But this case is no ordinary courtroom drama. It is a set piece in a national political confrontation in which the remaining acts are unwritten.
Only once, toward the end of the first day, did anyone mention the words “special counsel.” Zehnle said it casually, in passing, with no reference to Trump or Russia or any of the political firestorm that has dominated the news for all of this presidency.
Yet the reason the courtroom was packed, the reason an overflow courtroom three stories below was also full, the reason the lawn in front of the building was given over to TV crews in their ritual encampment awaiting news, the reason for all of this was the cases yet to come, the deeper layers of the onion.
On this day, the prosecutors merely peeled off some of its skin, satisfying precisely no one.