Manafort judge takes Mueller team & defense counsel to task

CNN's Evan Perez reports.

Posted: Aug 2, 2018 2:38 PM
Updated: Aug 2, 2018 2:40 PM

The criminal trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort pressed on for its second day at a steady clip Wednesday, even as his former boss President Donald Trump called the investigation of Manafort as part of an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election a "hoax."

Here are five takeaways from day two:

A Theme Emerges: Buying luxury goods via international wire transfer

The prosecution's case is gaining steam. Witness after witness filled Wednesday afternoon with testimony about how Manafort personally spent millions of dollars on luxury clothing, a premium watch, Mercedes Benz cars, real estate and home improvements -- and paid for much of it out of offshore shell company accounts that sent the money through international wire transfers.

Prosecutors call the group of witnesses "the vendors."

First came the 29-year-old impeccably dressed clothier from New Jersey, who said Manafort was among the top five of about 40 high-end clients of his father's custom men's clothing boutique. Manafort was the only client to pay him through international wire transfers, the former clothing store manager said. Then came a manager of the House of Bijan, which is often billed as the most expensive men's store in the world. The manager said he too received international wire transfers from Manafort-related companies, including for a limited edition titanium watch with crystal.

Prosecutors are trying to demonstrate for the jury how Manafort used money he earned in Ukraine for his personal benefit, and hid it from federal authorities and others in shell companies.

What Manafort Bought

Let's tally up the purchases revealed in court Wednesday.

A realtor-friend of Manafort sold his daughter a house in Virginia for $1.9 million. A contractor said Manafort spent more than $3 million over five years for home improvement.

Manafort spent over $900,000 with the custom men's clothing store Alan Couture, another witness who ran the store said.

In total, the six vendors on the witness stand Wednesday described more than $6 million in payments Manafort sent to them for luxury items and services.

The purchases appear to have hit a note with the wider public. After prosecutors first spoke about a $15,000 jacket "made from an ostrich" in the trial's first minutes, the anti-animal cruelty group PETA published a letter Wednesday to Manafort's lawyer. The group asked Manafort to donate the ostrich jacket to them so they can teach children it was "cruelly obtained." Manafort could receive a tax deduction, PETA added.

Focus on Rick Gates -- will he testify?

The defense team is still trying to pick away at longtime Manafort deputy and special counsel cooperator Rick Gates' credibility. On the first day of the trial, the defense team outlined how they sought to blame Gates for Manafort's alleged crimes.

Prosecutors asked several of the vendor witnesses on Wednesday if they ever met Gates. They all said no. But the deputy was copied on emails and dealt with payment issues on behalf of Manafort.

Gates pleaded guilty in February to a case against him and Manafort in Washington, DC, which Manafort is still fighting. Prosecutors then dropped almost two dozen charges against Gates in the Virginia case that's currently on trial.

The most pulse-pumping moment of the trial in day two also involved Gates. That was when prosecutor Uzo Asonye said Gates may or may not testify against Manafort. Several reporters dashed out of the courtroom, and Ellis remarked they "scurried out of here like rats." Asonye then backtracked, saying he didn't mean to suggest that Gates wouldn't testify.

Gates is still expected to testify.

Rocket Docket

It's Judge T.S. Ellis' courtroom and the attorneys, witnesses and spectators best know who's boss.

Throughout the full day of fast-moving witness testimony, Ellis asserted his presence dozens of times and even raised his voice.

He stopped prosecutors from showing on screens in the courtrooms photographs of the high-end items Manafort owned, like custom jackets. Instead, Ellis repeatedly pushed prosecutors to "hurry up," "move along" or get to the "next question."

"It's my job to see we get this thing done with the least amount of wasted time," he said.

Meet Manafort trial ringmaster T.S. Ellis

At the end of the day, Ellis snapped at prosecutor Brandon Van Grack as he started to describe another document for the jury. "Let's cut to the chase," Ellis said, nearly yelling. "We don't need to look at pictures of property." The prosecutor told Ellis he had misheard -- that it wasn't a photo at all. Ellis was so impatient he then took over questioning the witness for about a minute.

Ellis has clearly taken pleasure in entertaining the jury. He's introduced to them the white noise machine the court uses to shield attorney conferences from the jurors, ribbed jurors for sitting in the same seats each day and said he will allow jurors to bring in a birthday cake Friday for a celebration.

Trump tweets

Ellis reminded the 12 jurors and four alternate jurors on Wednesday they should resist the urge to watch TV, read the news or discuss with anyone they know what they're consuming at the trial. The jury is not sequestered, a measure that courts sometimes take in high-profile cases to maintain the jurors' objectivity.

The possibility became more likely than ever that the jury could hear outsiders' thoughts on the case, after Trump tweeted about Manafort's trial and the special counsel office's "witch hunt" Wednesday morning.

"Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and 'Public Enemy Number One,' or Paul Manafort, political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement - although convicted of nothing?" the President tweeted.

The courtroom itself has been largely Trump-free. Prosecutors successfully prevented a political consultant who testified about working with Manafort in Ukraine from talking about his political affiliations early in the day.

Late in the afternoon, one witness spoke the word "Trump" for what appears to be the first time in the trial. It was a contractor who described years of renovations he did on Manafort's New York residences, including one in Trump Tower.

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