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Manafort trial Day 8: A 'prosecutor's dream' despite judge's non-apology apology

As one of Manafort's lawyers prepared to question the witness, US District Judge T.S. Ellis III spoke up. "You might want to spend time on a loan that was granted," he chided the prosecutors. Assistant US Attorney Uzo Asonye paused before he addressed the judge. "Your honor," he said, "this is a charged count in the indictment" — meaning the witness's testimony was about one of the bank fraud charges against Manafort that the government has the burden of proving at trial.

Ellis dropped that comment in front of the jury, as he has many others, and he did so even after being forced to concede fault about an incident that unfolded the day before.

In that instance, Ellis admonished prosecutors—again in front of the jury—for allowing one of their expert witnesses to remain in the courtroom during the testimony of other witnesses. Only, the prosecution had filed a motion on the issue and Ellis had granted it. When U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye offered to check the transcript to verify they had indeed asked permission, Ellis replied:

"Let me be clear: I don't care what the transcript says. Maybe I made a mistake. But I want you to remember don't do that again."

Apparently, that was such a bad showing that the prosecution filed a motion overnight for a "curative instruction" to the jury that would inform jurors about whether the prosecution had acted improperly. The transcript, in fact, verified what Asonye had told the judge before getting dressed down. That left Ellis little choice but to inform the jury that he had been mistaken the day before.

"I was probably wrong in that," Judge Ellis told jurors on Thursday, shortly after they were seated. "But like any human, and this robe doesn't make me anything other than human, I sometimes make mistakes. And I may have made a mistake there and any criticism to counsel should be put entirely aside."

Turns out that brief show of humility was just that—brief. 

But fear not. Despite the Ellis sideshow, former federal prosecutor and MSNBC contributor Barbara McQuade said the prosecution made a strong showing during most of Thursday's proceedings. 

"Today was a prosecutor's dream," she said, noting that most of the day was spent on rather "dull and tedious" details for most court watchers and even jurors. But the point was, little of the evidence relied on the presentation of a witness. "The case comes in through documents," McQuade explained.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's team spent most of the day teasing out the bank fraud case against Manafort, calling witnesses who testified about Manafort's efforts to get loans on certain properties he claimed were residences. He also claimed he hadn't taken out mortgages on a host of other properties he owned. Both turned out to be lies. Politico writes

Mueller’s team noted documents showing Manafort had also filed tax returns declaring the property, located in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, as a rental for 365 days a year that had been listed on Airbnb. Prosecutors also presented insurance and financial documents detailing debts Manafort had on his other properties.

The defense sought to pin the whole thing on Manafort's former deputy Rick Gates, arguing that Gates had corresponded with bank officials and misled them during the months-long application process. But the prosecution noted that Manafort had been copied on that correspondence and questioned what motivation Gates would even have for spearheading the entire fraudulent effort.

"As far as you know, did Mr. Gates received one penny from this cash-out refinancing?" Asonye asked the loan assistant for Citizens Bank, Melinda James.

"No," James replied.

Overall, McQuade thought the defense fell short of proving their theory of the case—that Gates masterminded all of Manafort's financial misdeeds without his knowledge.

"We've got Paul Manafort, personally sending emails, personally attending closings," she said, "so I think it was a very strong day for the prosecution."

One last juicy detail: At the request of Mueller’s team, the judge sealed a private discussion between himself and the attorneys about “how the prosecution’s star witness, Rick Gates, has aided Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign.” Presumably, that discussion pertained to the greater role Gates has played in the Russia probe. “Disclosing the identified transcript portions would reveal substantive evidence pertaining to an ongoing investigation,” prosecutors wrote in their motion to seal the transcript. Yum.

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