The trial of US President Donald Trump’s one-time campaign chairman Paul Manafort has begun, with prosecutors painting him as someone who hid his wealth from political work in Ukraine.
Mr Manafort felt tax and banking laws did not apply to him, a prosecutor said in the government’s opening statement, telling the jury Mr Manafort opened more than 30 bank accounts in three foreign countries to “receive and hide” income.
But a defence lawyer painted a drastically different portrait of Mr Manafort and made clear he will go after one of the government’s star witnesses, former Manafort associate Rick Gates.
Mr Gates pleaded guilty in February to conspiring against the US and lying to investigators, and agreed to co-operate with the investigation.
“This case is about taxes and trust,” Mr Manafort’s lawyer Thomas Zehnle told jurors in his opening statement.
“His trust in Rick Gates was misplaced,” Mr Zehnle said, accusing Mr Gates of embezzling millions of dollars from Mr Manafort.
He asked Mr Manafort to stand up and face the jury, calling him “a good man” and a talented political consultant.
Mr Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all 18 criminal counts, which centre on allegations that he hid much of the $60 million he earned in Ukraine in undisclosed overseas bank accounts and failed to pay taxes on it.
“A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him. Not tax, not banking law,” said prosecutor Uzo Asonye, a member of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team looking at Russian election meddling and whether any Trump campaign members co-ordinated with Moscow officials.
Mr Asonye said Mr Manafort set up more than 30 bank accounts in overseas countries and funnelled millions of dollars into them to bankroll an extravagant lifestyle.
He described how Mr Manafort snapped up expensive real estate in the US ($8 million worth), spent millions of dollars renovating his properties and more than $500,000 on “fancy clothes”– including a $21,000 watch and a $15,000 jacket “made from an ostrich”.
A Manafort conviction would give momentum to Mr Mueller, who has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies since the probe started 14 months ago.
An acquittal would support efforts by Mr Trump and his allies to portray the investigation as a “witch hunt.”
Mr Trump denies any campaign collusion with Russia. On Tuesday, he tried to make the case publicly that collusion would not be a crime anyway.
Three other former Trump aides, including Mr Gates, have already pleaded guilty and are co-operating with Mr Mueller’s probe.