Judge grants immunity for five witnesses in Manafort case; trial delayed until July 31

Posted at 6:45 PM, Jul 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-23 18:45:31-04

A federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia, granted the request Monday for five witnesses to testify with immunity in the criminal trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the first trial in the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

US District Judge T.S. Ellis also delayed the start of the trial, originally scheduled for Wednesday, to July 31.

Ellis will begin meeting jurors this week as scheduled. When jury selection begins, one question potential jurors will not be asked is how they voted in the 2016 presidential election.

“Of course people can be fair and impartial no matter who they voted for,” Ellis said.

The jury will consist of 16 people, including four alternates.

The five witnesses granted immunity are: James Brennan, Donna Duggan, Conor O’Brien, Cindy Laporta and Dennis Raico. Court filings do not provide details as to what each will be testifying about.

Manafort in court

A large portion of Monday’s hearing was dedicated to discussing a “data dump” of tens of thousands of pages of documents over the past month by the government.

Manafort appeared in person at Monday’s hearing, wearing a green jumpsuit with a rumpled collar.

Attorneys for Manafort said that they needed more time to review some 120,000 pages of documents, including documents and images taken from electronic devices belonging to Manafort’s former business partner Rick Gates, that were “at the heart of the issue” in the case. Prosecutors pushed back and said most of the documents were actually images and notes from Gates’ devices — not emails.

Mueller’s team has four “phones or iPads” and one laptop belonging to Gates, who pleaded guilty earlier this year and has been cooperating with the investigation. He is expected to be a key witness in Mueller’s case.

“I’m just not sure what looking at pictures is going to do for their case,” said Uzo Asonye, a prosecutor working with Mueller’s team.

“The fact that you’re not using something does not mean it’s not usable by the defense,” Ellis responded.

Role of politics in trial

The contours of Manafort’s upcoming trial became clearer as Ellis weighed in on what arguments could be made before jurors and what type of information could be presented.

Ellis said he’ll allow prosecutors to mention Manafort’s role on the Trump campaign, but only as it relates to a banker who allegedly sought to secure a role on the campaign in exchange for loans.

“We’ll try to do it in a discrete way,” said Greg Andres, one of Mueller’s prosecutors.

Manafort’s lawyers also sought to prevent prosecutors from talking about alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Prosecutors said they never planned to bring this up. In response, Ellis denied Manafort’s motion as moot.

“I don’t anticipate that a government witness will utter the word ‘Russia,” Andres said.

Manafort’s lawyers said they did not plan on arguing at trial that Manafort was the victim of a political prosecution or that he was “selectively” or “vindictively” prosecuted.

There was also a dispute over whether Manafort’s legal team could make arguments to the jury about Mueller’s “motive” in bringing charges in this case. Ellis made it clear that he generally believes that prosecutors’ motives are not relevant at trial, but said Manafort’s lawyers could approach him during the trial, to make the argument in its “then-living color” as it comes up.

During a discussion about Manafort’s work in Ukraine, Ellis, who often peppers his hearings with colorful asides, went on a tangent about Russian history and his own family’s story.

He said his mother’s family grew up in a shtetl, or a Jewish community, in a part of Russia that saw its borders change repeatedly. Ellis said his family’s story taught him that many Americans have “antipathy” toward Russia and might not even know the difference between Russia and Ukraine.

Ellis even mentioned Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea, a territory of Ukraine.

“They populated the Balkans, they populated the Baltics,” Ellis said. “Now we see they populated Crimea with Russians.”