Trump surges to fore of Manafort trial

President Trump says that the criminal trial of his former campaign aide, Paul Manafort, has nothing to do with him.

But jurors in a Virginia courtroom heard his name repeatedly on Tuesday.

Trump’s name, his 2016 campaign and his inauguration came up several times during the trial’s sixth day, the most by far in the bank- and tax-fraud case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller. While the case does not directly involve the president, on Tuesday Trump became an unmistakable presence in the background.

Documents and testimony spelled out Manafort’s myriad ties to Trump and his 2016 White House run. They showed that Manafort sought to ease his financial pressures by trading on his influence in Trump’s orbit.

His longtime deputy, Rick Gates, said it was “possible” he had stolen money from Trump’s inauguration committee. And Gates described the roles that he and Manafort had played in Trump’s winning campaign.

The court even learned that Manafort’s ties to Trump extend well beyond the 2016 campaign.

A 2013 document entered into evidence showed that Manafort planned to share his New York Yankee season tickets with the then-real estate mogul and reality television star.

Even if the core subject of Mueller’s probe — potential collusion with the Kremlin — never came up, the references were a reminder that the case has implications that go far beyond two Republican lobbyist-consultants who concealed the fortune they made assisting a Ukrainian politician years before joining Trump’s campaign.

How that might sway the 12 jurors who will decide the case is unknowable. But continued references to Trump could anger the president himself, who has reportedly been following the trial closely and chafing at the intense cable TV coverage, and suggesting that it has no real bearing on him.

Manafort “worked for me for a very short time,” Trump tweeted last week. “These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion - a Hoax!”

In an interview with POLITICO Tuesday, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani dismissed the significance of the frequent references to the president, and derided Gates’s credibility. “Who can tell when he’s telling the truth?” Giuliani asked.

U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis has all but banned explicit discussion of the president and his campaign. During opening statements last week, Manafort defense attorney Tom Zehnle referred vaguely to Manafort’s role in “the candidacies of … multiple U.S. presidents,” but avoided mentioning Trump by name.

Before Tuesday, Trump’s name had barely been uttered in the Virginia federal courtroom. Last week, a home improvement contractor who did work for Manafort made a passing mention to work he’d done on Manafort’s apartment in Manhattan’s Trump Tower.

That changed on Tuesday. In questioning by prosecutor Greg Andres Tuesday, Gates described the work he and Manafort did for Trump in 2016.

“He ultimately became chairman of the campaign,” Gates said of his longtime boss. The Manafort protégé, who is cooperating with prosecutors as part of a plea deal with Mueller, acknowledged that he remained when Manafort left the campaign, and also that he worked for Trump’s inaugural committee.

With permission Ellis granted before the trial’s opening, prosecutors also discussed an alleged Trump campaign connection to $16 million in loans Manafort received in 2016 and 2017 from Chicago-based Federal Savings Bank. Prosecutors say that in order to receive loans from the bank, Manafort lied about his finances and did favors for its CEO, headed by Stephen Calk.

Gates acknowledged Tuesday that Calk landed a position on the Trump campaign’s economic advisory board. Andres also showed the jury a post-election email from Manafort to Gates pushing Calk for a high-ranking Pentagon post.

“Rick…We need to discuss Steve Calk for [Secretary] of Army. I hear the list is being considered this weekend…P,” said the message.

In an email with the subject line, “URGENT: INAUGURAL INVITATION LISTS – FINAL,” Manafort sent Gates an updated slate of people to be invited. “This list supercedes [sic] everything else and should be the one used,” Manafort wrote.

Another email released by prosecutors as part of the same court exhibit appears to show that Calk asked Manafort for at least 11 inauguration tickets and the former Trump campaign chairman put all the names on a lengthy list Manafort forwarded to Gates.

In a surprise twist, Gates admitted under questioning that he may have stolen money from Trump’s inaugural committee.

In an intense cross-examination, Manafort defense lawyer Kevin Downing suggested that Gates had told prosecutors that he did the same thing at the inaugural committee that he did while in Manafort’s employ: inflate expenses.

Gates initially seemed confused by the question and said the inaugural committee watched its expenses “very closely.”

However, Gates eventually conceded he may have sought money he was not entitled to.

“Did you submit personal expenses to the inaugural committee?” Downing asked.

“I don’t recall. It’s possible,” Gates said.

Trump’s name also surfaced in an unexpected way as Mueller’s prosecutors presented a March 2013 memo authored by Gates detailing a phone call with Manafort on a range of topics, from working on that year’s tax returns to offshore business accounts.

Near the very bottom: a line about Manafort’s New York Yankees season tickets, and a plan for “tickets going to Trump next week.”

Prosecutors asked Gates in general about Manafort’s pricey Yankees season tickets but didn’t acknowledge the document’s Trump reference. But they did display the document on the court’s audio-visual system for the entire courtroom to see.

Ellis did cut off one line of questioning Tuesday that focused on Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“Were you asked by the special counsel about your work for the Trump campaign?” Downing asked Gates.

“Yes,” Gates replied.

But when Downing sought to get into the substance of the conversations, Andres objected. After a sidebar conference out of the earshot of jurors and the public, the defense’s questioning of Gates moved on to another topic.

Speaking to POLITICO on Tuesday afternoon, Giuliani said any efforts Manafort made for Calk didn’t have much traction with the Trump operation.

“He got no position in the government,” Giuliani said.

Asked about the position the bank executive did secure on the campaign’s economy advisory board, the president’s lawyer said: “That is a volunteer thing.”

Giuliani said it was unclear whether Gates actually defrauded Trump’s inaugural committee, suggesting that Gates can't be trusted.

Giuliani had a curt reaction to the evidence indicating Trump may have taken advantage of Manafort’s Yankees tickets at one point.

“So what?” the former New York mayor said. “I think I have better seats than him at Yankee Stadium. I’m right behind the catcher. Before he was president he sat with me.”

That the trial could become a sort of anti-Trump political carnival seemed a real possibility a week ago as protesters milled outside the courthouse’s main entrance last week, banging on a drum and hoisting signs urging Manafort to turn on the president and aid Mueller’s Russia probe. But those demonstrations have petered out.

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