Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. said to Judge T. S. Ellis that Rick Gates “may testify in this case, your honor, he may not.” Up until now, Gates was thought to be the prosecution’s star witness.
Rick Gates was Paul Manafort’s long-time aide and confidante. When first questioned by Mueller’s investigators, Gates lied. Shortly afterward, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements, and was granted immunity in return for testifying against his former colleague.
Manafort’s attorney, Thomas Zehnle, hit the former aide pretty hard in his opening statements. He “blamed the allegations against Manafort on one man: Rick Gates.”
Zehnle went on to say that Manafort had put “his trust in the wrong person,” referring to Gates.
The defense argued that Gates was the one who transferred all the money into accounts, including consulting fees collected from Ukrainian political figures. They said he was embezzling money and later lied about it to investigators – before agreeing to flip and testify against Manafort.
It’s not clear why Asonye made this remark to the judge. It’s possible he was “teasing” the defense. Or, perhaps after hearing the defense attorney’s opening statements, prosecutors may believe that Gates has very little credibility. They may be worried that his testimony would fall apart under cross-examination. And they should be worried about that because Gates was the one who actually handled the consulting business’s finances.
It is worth noting that Gates’ legal team, Shanlon Wu, Walter Mack and Annemarie McAvoy, filed a motion in February to withdraw as his counsel, citing “irreconcilable differences.”
Recently, Mueller requested and obtained immunity for five individuals who had financial and real estate dealings with Manafort and Gates. Washington attorney and former federal prosecutor Shanlon Wu (referenced above), offers some insight on these witnesses.
They are mostly financial witnesses who worked on operational day-to-day activities.
Through these less glamorous worker-bee witnesses, the prosecution will admit its evidence and, most importantly, explain the evidence.
Don’t expect dramatic revelations from each of these witnesses, but a series of small revelations that the prosecution hopes will be the building blocks of their case. Immunized witnesses typically face cross-examination from defense counsel, focusing on how the immunity gives them an incentive to say anything the government wants.
They are seldom very popular with juries but their testimony typically overcomes the distaste most jurors have for them.
Even though the immunized witnesses lack glamor, their testimony will not lack for drama. Remember these are people who worked closely with Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, for a long time. There will be uncomfortable moments for all of them. This will be particularly true when [if] Gates, who has already pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, testifies against his former boss, mentor and business partner. Expect fireworks if Manafort’s lawyers challenge Gates’s truthfulness and integrity as being self-serving.
Judge Ellis, a Republican and a Reagan appointee, has been a vigilant protector of Manafort’s rights. As the trial began its second day on Wednesday, the Mueller team tried to show the court photographs of Manafort’s oversized wardrobe. The judge would not allow it saying, “Enough is enough. We don’t convict people because they have a lot of money and throw it around.”
He called the photos “unnecessary, irrelevant and potentially prejudicial…Mr. Manafort is not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle, but for not reporting income on his taxes.”
Ellis also requested that they stop using the word “oligarch” in reference to the wealthy Ukrainians that Manafort was dealing with.
The term has a “pejorative” meaning and is not relevant in this case. Further, he cautioned that using it could suggest Manafort is associated with bad people – and guilty by association.
“It’s not the American way,” the judge said. He noted that wealthy donors like George Soros or the Koch brothers also could be considered oligarchs.
This is the same judge who lectured members of the Mueller team in May, accusing them of indicting Manafort so he would provide incriminating information about Trump. Ellis said,
The vernacular is to sing…you don’t really care about Mr. Manafort. You really care about what information Mr. Manafort can give you to lead to Mr. Trump and his eventual prosecution or impeachment…it’s unlikely you’re going to persuade me the special counsel has unfettered power to do whatever he wants.
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