ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors on Tuesday portrayed President Donald Trump’s onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort as someone who hid his wealth from political work in Ukraine, as the first trial began arising from an investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Manafort felt tax and banking laws did not apply to him, a prosecutor said in the government’s opening statement, telling the Virginia federal court jury he opened more than 30 bank accounts in three foreign countries to “receive and hide” income.
A defense lawyer painted a drastically different portrait of Manafort and made clear he will go after one of the government’s star witnesses, former Manafort associate Rick Gates. Gates pleaded guilty in February to conspiring against the United States and lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.
“This case is about taxes and trust,” Manafort’s attorney Thomas Zehnle told jurors in his opening statement. “His trust in Rick Gates was misplaced,” Zehnle said, accusing Gates of embezzling millions of dollars from Manafort.
He asked Manafort to stand up and face the jury, calling him “a good man” and a talented political consultant.
Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all 18 criminal counts, which center on allegations that he hid much of the $60 million he earned in Ukraine in undisclosed overseas bank accounts and failed to pay taxes on it.
“A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him. Not tax, not banking law,” said prosecutor Uzo Asonye, a member of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team looking at Russian election meddling and whether any Trump campaign members coordinated with Moscow officials.
The government’s first witness following opening statements was Tad Devine, who recalled his work with Manafort in Ukraine to help pro-Russian political figure Viktor Yanukovych.
“It was a really incredible operation,” Devine said of Manafort’s work for Yanukovych, who became Ukraine’s president in 2010, was removed from power four years later and lives in exile in Russia.
A Manafort conviction would give momentum to Mueller, who has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies since the probe started 14 months ago. An acquittal would support efforts by Trump and his allies to portray the investigation as a “witch hunt.”
Trump denies any campaign collusion with Russia, and on Tuesday tried to make the case publicly that collusion would not be a crime anyway.
Prosecutors have said they will not present evidence of collusion at this trial. The charges against Manafort largely pre-date his five months of work for the Trump campaign, some of them as campaign chairman.
Trump has vacillated between showing sympathy for Manafort and trying to distance himself. Manafort attended a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians that is a focal point of Mueller’s probe.
Earlier in the day, prosecutors and defense attorneys selected a 12-member jury to weigh Manafort’s fate. Four alternate jurors, three women and one man, also were chosen.
Manafort, 69, was seated in the courtroom wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie.
Asonye said Manafort set up more than 30 bank accounts in overseas countries and funneled millions of dollars into them in order to bankroll an extravagant lifestyle. Asonye described how Manafort snapped up expensive real estate in the United States, spent millions of dollars on renovating his properties and more than a half million dollars on “fancy clothes.”
Three other former Trump aides, including Gates, have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with Mueller’s probe.
Prosecutors are seeking to provide details of Manafort’s work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, raising the possibility that new information about his Russian connections could emerge. Manafort has filed a motion to have details of that work excluded from trial.
Mueller was appointed by the U.S. Justice Department’s No. 2 official last year to take over an FBI investigation.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis made several jokes during the jury selection process, including about the quality of the lunches jurors will be provided. While many in the courtroom laughed, including Manafort’s lawyers, the defendant himself did not.
Manafort actively conferred with his lawyers during the jury selection process, writing and passing notes. Manafort’s wife, Kathleen, was sitting behind him in the courtroom.
Outside the courthouse, a handful of protesters displayed a life-sized puppet of Trump and held signs saying “Trump won’t do time for you,” “It’s Mueller time,” and “I like your new suit” alongside a photo of Manafort’s mug shot.
The Virginia trial will be followed by a second one in Washington in September in which Manafort is charged with money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent and witness tampering. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to those charges.
Reporting by Nathan Layne, Sarah N. Lynch and Karen Freifeld; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley, John Walcott; Writing by Warren Strobel; editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool