Judge backs off comments to prosecutors in ex-Trump aide Manafort’s trial

By Karen Freifeld and Sarah N. Lynch

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The judge in the trial of U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort expressed contrition on Thursday to jurors for harsh commentary directed at prosecutors.

“I may have made a mistake. It has nothing to do with your consideration in this case,” U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis said as the trial went into its eighth day in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

Ellis has repeatedly prodded prosecutors to move swiftly while seemingly giving Manafort’s defense team more latitude. He also has repeatedly made comments that some legal experts said may prejudice the jury against the prosecution.

Manafort has pleaded not guilty to 18 counts of bank fraud, tax fraud and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. He is the first person to be tried on charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

On Thursday, prosecutors in a legal filing asked the judge to correct some statements he had made on Wednesday.

Ellis had chastised the prosecution for allowing IRS agent Michael Welch to be present during court proceedings before taking his turn to testify.

Ellis has said he did not like having witnesses listen to the proceedings before they take the stand but the prosecution had previously requested case agents and experts be allowed. The prosecutors on Wednesday said Ellis had approved having them sit in, but the judge screamed at the lawyers in front of the jury, ‘”Don’t ever do that again.”

On Thursday morning, Mueller’s team requested that Ellis issue a “curative instruction” to the jury, saying he has “mistakenly faulted” the prosecution. In a filing to the court, prosecutors said that on the first day of the trial, they had told Ellis that Welch would remain in the courtroom, and he had not objected then.

Some lawyers following the trial also criticized Ellis for not reacting more strongly to defense lawyer Kevin Downing’s attempt to ask the government’s star witness Rick Gates on Wednesday whether he had told prosecutors about his four extramarital affairs.

According to a court transcript, Downing had agreed in a conference on Tuesday with the judge and prosecutors not to raise the subject with Gates, a longtime business partner of Manafort’s.

Prosecutors objected and Gates never answered the question.

Downing argued it was fair game because Gates had suggested on the stand he only had one affair. Gates, a married father of four, had testified he used his firm’s money to carry on the affair.

Ellis sustained the objection on the grounds that Gates’ affairs were irrelevant but did not rebuke Downing for mentioning the issue before the jury.

“It was highly inappropriate to raise the other affairs, and the judge’s response was very generous,” said Gene Rossi, a former prosecutor who has been attending the trial as a spectator. “In my experience, another judge would have cut his head off.”

In testimony on Thursday, mortgage assistant Melinda James of Citizens Bank told the court that Manafort lied about the status of two properties he owned in order to obtain a $3.4 million loan.

Manafort and Gates hid the fact that one property had a mortgage against it and falsely claimed that another property was a second residence for Manafort and his daughter, James said. In fact, she said, she discovered that the second property “was listed for rent.”

The prosecution has said it expected to wrap up its case by week’s end. Manafort’s lawyers have not yet indicated whether they plan to call witnesses as part of his defense. Their legal strategy so far has hinged on attacking the credibility and character of Gates.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Warren Strobel, Karen Freifeld, and Nathan Layne; editing by Anthony Lin and Grant McCool)

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