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Paul Manafort Trial Continues Next Week


The trial of Paul Manafort ended its second week yesterday. Donald Trump's former campaign chairman faces charges of bank fraud, tax fraud and tax evasion. Those charges, though, are not related to the 2016 election. Last week, there was an ostrich coat - an evidence of lush life. This week, a former Manafort pal turned state's evidence and said he committed tax and bank fraud with his old boss. Joining us now is Tim Belevetz, former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, where Mr. Manafort's trial is now taking place. Thanks very much for being with us.

TIM BELEVETZ: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The prosecution was supposed to rest yesterday, but there were some unexplained delays. Judge T.S. Ellis looked like he was - had things on the fast track. Do you have any idea what went on?

BELEVETZ: It could be any number of things, Scott. It - there was a sidebar that, as you know, was sealed. In other words, the conversation was not made public. Could be something related to a witness scheduling issue. It could be something related to an issue that the government and the defense jointly need to work out. Could be any number of things.

SIMON: I raise this because, of course, the judge has gotten a lot of attention for being tough on the prosecution. He even apologized for being too sharp. You've appeared before Judge Ellis.

BELEVETZ: Many times.

SIMON: Is he crankery and colorful, or does he cross the line?

BELEVETZ: Judge Ellis is a judge who is - likes to run a clean and efficient trial. He doesn't like trials to veer off - off course. In other words, he wants the parties to present the evidence that the jurors need to hear to render a decision. Along the way, he's active - maybe more active than other judges. He can be difficult to both parties, and he can be stern.

SIMON: Is there any reason for either side to worry that there could be grounds for an appeal in his conduct so far?

BELEVETZ: I'd say no. The standard for a judge's behavior that would - in other words, that would rise to the level of an appellate issue - is fairly high. In essence, it has to be a situation where the judge is substituting - the effect of his conduct is to substitute his judgment for that of the jurors. Comments that he makes to counsel can be solved with a curative instruction. We saw that a couple of days ago.

SIMON: Curative instruction meaning, I'm sorry I said that. Disregard that.

BELEVETZ: Exactly. Yeah, I made a mistake - mea culpa. I shouldn't have said that. Please disregard what I said and don't hold it against the counsel for either of the parties.

SIMON: Dramatic testimony from Richard Gates, Manafort's former business partner, this week who essentially said, look. Paul Manafort's a crook. And I know because I am, too. And we schemed together to steal money. That's an argument the defense can turn against the prosecution in a way, though, too, isn't it?

BELEVETZ: Absolutely. So what the defense may try to do is say, what we're dealing with here is a criminal, a dishonest individual from start to finish. He is being sponsored - his testimony is being sponsored by the government. But you can't trust him. After all, look at all the things he's done. He's stolen, in fact, not only from others but from his own business associate, Mr. Manafort.

SIMON: And he gets some kind of consideration for testifying - immunity, right?

BELEVETZ: Well, what he gets is...

SIMON: Maybe not absolute immunity, but OK, go ahead.

BELEVETZ: He's entered into a plea agreement with the government in connection with his own case. And as part of that plea agreement, he has what's called a cooperation provision. And under that cooperation provision, he is obligated to testify for the government - but to testify truthfully.

SIMON: Yeah.

BELEVETZ: That's something that has come up quite a bit.

SIMON: Agreement's vacated if he...

BELEVETZ: Precisely, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah. As someone with your experience, knowing lawyers on both sides, I gather - has the prosecution laid out a convincing case in the couple of weeks it's had?

BELEVETZ: From what I can tell, as an observer of the trial, it has. You have to bear in mind what the juror's going to be focused on are the documents. In a white-collar criminal case, it's hard to ignore what the documents say. You've got tax returns that they're putting in. You've got mortgage applications that they've entered into evidence. You've got emails. The witnesses are putting those emails - those other communications - in the context. But to a large degree, the record is all written.

SIMON: And just in the 25 seconds we have left, any idea what direction the defense is going to take?

BELEVETZ: It's hard to say. The defense can put witnesses on, or the defense can choose not to. The defense can put the defendant on or can choose not to. I think that's probably unlikely in this case. I don't think Paul Manafort will end up taking the witness stand. But I think, at the end of the day, they're going to end up pointing their finger at Gates as a dishonest business associate who really is the one responsible for these crimes.

SIMON: Tim Belevetz, former federal prosecutor, now in private practice. Thanks so much for being with us.

BELEVETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.