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What we learned from the opening statements at Paul Manafort’s trial

The prosecution brought up a $15,000 ostrich jacket. The defense attacked Rick Gates.

Albert V. Bryan US Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The first day of Paul Manafort’s first trial started with a bang. Both the prosecution and the defense gave eyebrow-raising opening statements Tuesday afternoon, according to accounts from the Washington Post, Politico, CNN, and other media outlets.

As expected, the government argued that Manafort believed he was above the law — raking in tens of millions without reporting the money or paying taxes on it, and spending it lavishly. For the first time, though, Assistant US Attorney Uzo Asonye made the claim that Manafort spent $15,000 to buy “a jacket made from an ostrich.”

Meanwhile, the defense made clear that they think their best chance of acquittal is by attacking cooperating witness Rick Gates — Manafort’s longtime right-hand man, who was charged alongside him last year but has since struck a plea deal with prosecutors. “Mr. Manafort placed his trust in the wrong person … Rick Gates,” defense attorney Thomas Zehnle said.

And they’re going further than merely blaming Gates for the crimes alleged against Manafort — they’re saying that Gates embezzled millions of dollars from Manafort too. “Rick Gates had his hand in the cookie jar,” Zehnle added, according to the Washington Post.

But while attacking Gates may be the best argument Manafort’s team has, there are shortcomings to such a strategy too — the government’s case relies on a plethora of documents and more than two dozen witnesses, not Gates alone.

The government’s narrative: Manafort believed he was above the law, and we have the records to prove it. (Also an ostrich coat.)

An ostrich Uwe Anspach/picture alliance via Getty

This trial of Manafort — the first of two currently scheduled — focuses on alleged crimes related to his money. He’s accused of laundering $30 million in payments from Ukraine into the US without ever paying taxes on it or disclosing his foreign accounts to the US government. He’s also accused of defrauding several US banks to get a set of hefty loans, totaling more than $20 million (allegedly because he needed cash once the Ukrainian regime was toppled and the money stopped coming in).

Uzo Asonye — an assistant US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, recently assigned to work with Mueller’s team on Manafort’s Virginia trial — made the opening statement for the government.

He bookended it with an argument about Manafort’s character. Near the beginning, Asonye said, “A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him. Not tax law, not banking law,” according to the Post. He closed by asking the jury to send Manafort a message: “to make clear he is not above the law, that the rules apply to him.”

In between, Asonye ran through the specifics of the government’s case, familiar from the indictment last February. For allegedly wiring $30 million to be spent in the US without declaring it or paying taxes on it, Manafort is accused of five counts of subscribing to false income tax returns and four counts of not reporting his foreign bank accounts.

The most attention-getting new detail on that front was that the luxury goods the government says Manafort bought with his offshore cash included a $15,000 coat “made from an ostrich.” (The indictment alleged Manafort spent $849,000 at a men’s clothing store in New York and $520,000 at a clothing store in Beverly Hills, but the ostrich detail is new.)

The second set of charges is four counts of bank fraud and five counts of bank fraud conspiracy. For those, Asonye said, Manafort defrauded US banks by lying about his company’s finances; “he created cash out of thin air.”

The defense’s narrative: It’s all Rick Gates’s fault

Rick Gates.
Rick Gates.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Manafort’s main line of defense against these accusations, if the opening statement by his attorney Thomas Zehnle is any indication, is to attack Rick Gates.

Gates worked alongside Manafort on his Ukrainian business for nearly a decade, and then went over with him to join the Trump campaign in 2016.

The two were indicted together by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team last October — but in February, Gates struck a plea deal with Mueller in exchanged for cooperation and had most of his charges withdrawn.

Now that Gates has turned on Manafort, Manafort is returning the favor. His team is arguing in court that not only is Gates responsible for these alleged financial crimes but he also “embezzled” from “his long time employer,” according to Brandi Buchman of Courthouse News.

Furthermore, Manafort’s team appears to be trying to exaggerate Gates’s centrality to the government’s case — according to the Huffington Post, Zehnle called Gates the “foundation of the special counsel’s case.”

That isn’t accurate, for several reasons. First off, all these charges were brought against Manafort before Gates agreed to cooperate. Second, most of the charges are about forms that were filed or not filed with the IRS, the Treasury Department, or US banks (as part of loan applications) — that is, they’re not about simple allegations from Gates. Third, the government has said it will call around 30 witnesses to testify against Manafort.

But it seems the defense believes the best chance of getting Manafort off the hook is to portray Gates as a scheming sellout, and hope the jury focuses on doubts about his forthrightness rather than the other witnesses or documents here.