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Paul Manafort trial Day 9: Prosecutors again ask Judge Ellis to correct one of his quips before jury

Paul Manafort, President Trump’s onetime campaign chairman, is on trial in federal court in Alexandria on bank and tax fraud charges. Prosecutors allege he failed to pay taxes on millions he made from his work for a Russia-friendly Ukrainian political party, then lied to get loans when the cash stopped coming in.

The case is being prosecuted by the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.


11:33 a.m.: Manafort trial, with bench conferences and no witnesses, pauses for lunch

Paul Manafort’s trial will not resume until 1:45 p.m. Friday, though the reason for the delay is not precisely clear.

As the trial resumed around 9:45 a.m., Judge T.S. Ellis III summoned lawyers for both sides to his bench for a conference that was blanketed by white noise. The jurors were not yet in the courtroom. He then took a short break – about 10 minutes — and returned to the courtroom for another bench conference.

That conference was somewhat lengthier, and the judge summoned the court security officer to join the lawyers. The judge seemed to talk with the court security officer as the lawyers listened.

Ellis then declared another recess, though before he left court, he issued a strange warning to those gathered, “You cannot look and see what’s on counsels’ tables, without their permission of course.” He left to the side of the courtroom where the jurors usually gather, which is different from where he usually exits.

The judge said the break would take about 15 minutes, though it was substantially longer. At about 10:35 a.m., one of the judge’s staff members emerged to gather the board used during jury selection.

At 11:07 a.m., Ellis came back and seemed to call the case as usual. “All right, bring the jury in, please,” he said.

All 16 jurors came in.

“A belated good morning to you,” Ellis said. He told the panel he planned to call the roll as normal, but then have an early lunch break so he could consider other matters.

“We are going to continue with the evidence in this case in the afternoon,” Ellis said.

Ellis’s clerk called each juror by their number, and all said they were present. As he does each morning, Ellis asked the group if they had been able to avoid talking to anyone about the case or doing their own investigation. They said they had. Then Ellis delivered a lengthier admonition.

“It’s very important that you not discuss the case with anyone,” he said. He noted that Manafort had a “presumption of innocence,” and jurors should be keeping an open mind until the case was complete.

“Keep an open mind until all the evidence is in,” Ellis said.

With that, the jurors left. The panel – which has usually entered the courtroom smiling or even laughing – seemed more stone faced than usual. Ellis offered no explanation to the public for what had happened. The trial is expected to resume at 1:45 p.m.

10:45 a.m.: Special counsel again asks judge to tell jury he was wrong

Perhaps emboldened by their small victory Thursday, when Judge T.S. Ellis III conceded he was “probably wrong” to lambaste the special counsel for doing something he allowed them to do, prosecutors in the Paul Manafort trial have now asked him to tell the jury to ignore another of his intemperate comments.

Comments made by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in front of the jury hearing the Paul Manafort case are again being criticized by prosecutors. (Tracy Woodward/The Washington Post)

On Thursday, after Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye walked a banker through a $5.5 million loan negotiation with Paul Manafort that ended in rejection, the judge cut in with skepticism.

“You might want to spend time on a loan that was granted,” he said.

When Asonye protested that the attempt to get that loan constituted one of the bank fraud conspiracy charges against Manafort, Ellis responded harshly, “I know that.”

“The Court’s statement that the government ‘might want to spend time on a loan that was granted’ misrepresents the law regarding bank fraud conspiracy, improperly conveys the Court’s opinion of the facts, and is likely to confuse and mislead the jury,” prosecutors wrote in their filing Friday morning. “The Court should provide a curative instruction in order to avoid any potential prejudice to the government.”

Defense attorneys in other cases have pointed to similar comments from Ellis when challenging guilty verdicts in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. But prosecutors cannot appeal a not-guilty verdict, and so the special counsel has begun challenging Ellis mid-trial.

Prosecutors filed a similar motion Thursday morning, after Ellis yelled at prosecutors for allowing their expert witness to sit through the trial in the gallery, when witnesses are typically excluded from the courtroom so as not to be influenced by other witnesses’ testimony. The transcript of the first day of trial showed Ellis had explicitly allowed the expert, an IRS agent, to stay in the courtroom.

Ellis responded in court by saying that while he had not checked the transcript, he “may well have” allowed the expert in and that the jury should disregard his comments.

[‘It’s totally an embarrassment’: A Connecticut town ponders renaming Paul Manafort Drive]

9:21 a.m.: Is Rick Gates providing further cooperation to the Mueller investigation? Judge seals transcript.

The judge overseeing the Paul Manafort trial on Thursday granted a request from the special counsel’s office to keep secret a conversation that might shed light on its ongoing investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia.

The conversation came on Tuesday, as Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner who worked on both the Trump campaign and the Trump inaugural, was on the witness stand. During his cross examination of Gates, Manafort defense attorney Kevin Downing asked if, during Gates’s cooperation with the special counsel after he agreed to a plea deal, he was interviewed about the Trump campaign. Gates said he had been.

Rick Gates, former top associate of Paul Manafort, leaves the federal courthouse in Washington in February. (Alex Brandon/AP)

“And were you interviewed on several occasions about your time at the Trump campaign?” Downing continued.

“Objection, your honor,” special counsel prosecutor Greg Andres interjected.

The lawyers then convened at the bench of Judge T.S. Ellis III as white noise was piped through the courtroom. Gates was ultimately never asked to answer the question, and the conversation between the lawyers and Ellis, known as a bench conference or sidebar, was sealed in a transcript produced by the court reporter.

On Thursday, the special counsel’s office asked the judge to keep it that way.

“Disclosing the identified transcript portions would reveal substantive evidence pertaining to an ongoing investigation,” the special counsel’s office wrote. “The government’s interest in protecting the confidentiality of its ongoing investigations is compelling and justifies sealing the limited portion of the sidebar conference at issue here. In addition, sealing will minimize any risk of prejudice from the disclosure of new information relating to that ongoing investigation.”

The special counsel’s office wrote that their concerns about making the conversation public would “continue until the relevant aspect of the investigation is revealed publicly, if that were to occur.”

Ellis granted their request, writing it was necessary because making the conversation public would “reveal substantive evidence pertaining to an ongoing government investigation.” The public was left with a mere tantalizing hint about what Gates might have told the special counsel about his time on the Trump campaign, and what “new information” might have been revealed in the discussion at Ellis’s bench.

UPDATE, 1:16 p.m.: The special counsel’s office confirmed in a filing in Washington later Friday that Gates is still cooperating with them, but did not divulge any specifics about what they are discussing with Gates. In an update to the judge overseeing Gates’ criminal case in D.C., where he pleaded guilty in a plea deal, prosecutors said that Gates continues to cooperate and meet with the special counsel’s office, and that “the investigation, which includes the possible continued need for assistance from the defendant as required by his Plea Agreement, is ongoing.”

9:05 a.m.: Prosecution expected to rest case against Manafort today

Prosecutors expect to rest their case against Paul Manafort on Friday after calling four or five more witnesses to round out their case. That is an increase from their previous estimate, though one of the witnesses has testified in the case before.

Among those expected to take the stand are officials from Federal Savings Bank, one of the institutions Manafort is accused of defrauding to get a loan. That testimony could be particularly interesting because Manafort took steps to try to get Stephen Calk, the founder and chief executive of the bank, a job as Army secretary in the Trump administration, as well as an invite to the presidential inauguration. Calk himself, though, is not expected to be called by prosecutors.

Prosecutors also say they intend to call a man whose online bio says he is senior director of ticket operations for the New York Yankees. Manafort is accused of having his former associate Rick Gates claim, falsely, that he had used Manafort’s credit card to purchase Yankees season tickets.

After prosecutors wrap up their presentation, defense attorneys will be given an opportunity to call their own witnesses. It is unknown how many people — if any at all — they intend to call. Testimony resumes at 9:30 a.m.

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in federal court in Alexandria, Va., on the opening day of his trial. (Bill Hennessy/Reuters)

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