By Sarah N. Lynch, Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors raised the possibility on Wednesday that an expected star witness may not testify against President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort even as the judge tried to rein in their portrayal of Manafort’s lavish lifestyle.
Testimony in the second day of Manafort’s trial, the first stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 14-month investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, was overshadowed by Trump’s call for an end to the probe. Some Democrats accused Trump of obstruction of justice.
Manafort’s consulting work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine that earned him $60 million also took the spotlight in testimony in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington. Prosecutors questioned veteran political consultant Daniel Rabin about the work he did for Manafort.
The prosecution said in court it is moving ahead of schedule and intends to rest its case sometime next week.
Manafort, 69, is charged with tax fraud, bank fraud and failing to report foreign bank accounts. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Rick Gates, Manafort’s former business partner who pleaded guilty to making false statements after being indicted by Mueller, was expected to be a star government witness. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis asked the prosecution whether they planned to have Gates testify.
“He may testify in this case, he may not,” said prosecutor Uzo Asonye, a day after the defense made clear in opening statements to jurors that its strategy centered on discrediting Gates as an untruthful embezzler.
When the judge asked Asonye for a clarification, Asonye said prosecutors are constantly evaluating the need to call a particular witness and his comments were “not to suggest we are not calling him.”
Prosecutors have portrayed Manafort as a tax cheat who hid money in offshore accounts, and lied to borrow millions more against real estate in a bid to maintain an extravagant lifestyle once the work dried up.
The prosecution called witnesses to hammer home the point. Maximillian Katzman, of New York’s elite custom clothier Alan Couture, said Manafort was one of his top customers and, unlike any other customer, paid with international wire transfers.
Prosecution lawyer Greg Andres reviewed how much Manafort spent each year on clothing, including $440,160 in 2013 alone. Ellis interrupted Andres to say, “The government doesn’t want to prosecute somebody because they wear nice clothes, right?”
With the jury out of the room, the judge complained about prosecutors’ efforts to show that Manafort’s life was luxurious and blocked them from showing one document on home renovations.
“Mr. Manafort is not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle,” Ellis said.
When questioning witnesses who provided services to Manafort, prosecutors showed invoices that appeared to have been falsified as they sought to document the fraud charges.
Ellis chastised both sides for using the word “oligarch,” saying it has negative connotations and could give jurors the impression Manafort was “consorting and being paid by people who are criminals.”
“Of course, there will be no evidence about that,” the judge said, adding that oligarchs are merely rich people.
FBI Special Agent Matthew Mikuska, who executed a search warrant on Manafort’s Alexandria condominium last year, told jurors about the documents that were seized, describing loan agreements and applications, invoices and wire transfers. Mikuska said agents arrived at around 6 a.m. and knocked three times before entering the condominium with a key.
Trump repeatedly has sought to discredit Mueller’s investigation, which is also looking into whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Moscow and whether the president has unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe.
The Republican president wrote on Twitter, “This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further,” adding that Mueller’s team is a “disgrace to USA.”
In another tweet referring to 1920s Chicago mobster Alphonse “Al” Capone, Trump wrote, “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?”
Russia has denied interfering in the election. Trump denies any collusion by his campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Moscow directed the hacking of political groups and disinformation on social media to undermine Trump’s presidential election opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, and aid Trump’s candidacy.
The question of collusion with Russia is not at the heart of the case against Manafort. The charges largely pre-date the five months he worked for Trump during a pivotal period in the 2016 race for the White House, some of them as campaign chairman.
Mueller has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies, including 12 people court documents described as Russian intelligence agents who hacked into Democratic Party computer networks.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld in Alexandria, Virginia; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Grant McCool)