Milbank: Manafort is on trial; so is Trump's judgment

Washington Post Writers Group
Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III's prosecutors have taken pains not to make Paul Manafort's trial about President Trump.

When prosecutor Greg Andres on Tuesday asked Rick Gates, his star witness and Manafort's former business partner, where Manafort stayed in New York, Gates said "he had an apartment on Fifth Avenue." Neither mentioned that it was in Trump Tower.

When Andres flashed an exhibit on the screen that had a line about Manafort's Yankees tickets "going to Trump next week," neither man said the future president's name aloud.

And when Andres asked Gates what he did in March 2016, the two men performed some elliptical choreography.

"I went to work on one of the presidential campaigns," Gates said.

Andres asked if Manafort was "also working on one of the presidential campaigns."

"He was."

Perhaps the jurors thought they were talking about the George Pataki campaign?

Ultimately, however, there is no getting around it: This is Manafort's trial, but it reflects on Trump's style and judgment. Trump has described Manafort as a fleeting figure in his campaign, and it's true he couldn't have known the extent of the alleged wrongdoing. Yet the pair's history with unsavory characters was well known, and some of the misbehavior alleged in court occurred during their time working for Trump.

How does this happen? Or, as Manafort wrote upon learning his tax obligation was greater than expected: "WTF?"

Consider: In March 2016, the same month Manafort joined the Trump campaign, first to run the Republican convention and then as campaign chairman and top strategist, Manafort directed Gates to alter their struggling firm's income, adding $6 million in phantom funds so Manafort could qualify for a loan, Gates testified Tuesday afternoon.

In October 2016, after Manafort had been booted from the campaign but Gates was still on board, Manafort sought Gates' help in doctoring another profit-and-loss statement, Gates testified. Manafort magically turned a $600,000 loss into a $3 million profit, he said.

At the same time, according to emails from Manafort to Gates shown at the trial, Manafort successfully pushed Gates to use his position with the campaign to add banker Stephen Calk to Trump's list of economic advisers; Calk's bank loaned Manafort $16 million between July 2016 and January 2017. Manafort also worked to get his lender inauguration tickets.

The jury will decide whether to convict Manafort or whether to accept his claim that the illegal actions were undertaken by his protege, Gates, without his knowledge. Either way, Gates, who has already pleaded guilty, has admitted to a vast array of crooked schemes: fake expense accounts, fake invoices, false tax returns, fake loans, fake profit statements, shell companies and accounts in Cyprus and the Caribbean facilitated by a Cypriot dubbed "Doctor K."

Prosecutors are avoiding the most contentious issue between Trump and Mueller. Under instructions from Judge T.S. Ellis III — who routinely (and sometimes unfairly) reprimands the prosecutors — there is to be no discussion of Russia.

Yet the trial highlights another case of Trump's lax vetting of his aides. Manafort and Gates had been questioned by the FBI in 2014, but they likely wouldn't be where they are today if they hadn't joined Trump's campaign. In that sense, they are like others in Trump's circle — Donald Jr., Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, Scott Pruitt, Michael Cohen — who have had trouble withstanding the scrutiny that has come with Trump's rise. Presiding over it all is Trump, who boasts of his immunity to conflicts of interest and refuses to release his tax returns.

Watching Manafort in court Tuesday -- surrounded by beefy lawyers who could double as bodyguards — I wondered: What attracts people like Manafort to Trump? And what attracts Trump to people like Manafort?

Perhaps it was the way Manafort threw money around: the $15,000 ostrich coat, the $1 million spent at Alan Couture, the $300,000 at House of Bijan, the seven homes, the $1 million in Oriental rugs.

Or perhaps Trump sensed the gambler in Manafort.

Manafort and Gates had been elaborate with their shell companies and, when their income dried up because their patron in Ukraine was ousted as president, they allegedly employed ever more desperate schemes to hold off collapse.

Then, even as they faked legal documents, according to Gates' testimony, they signed on with the Trump campaign — a move sure to increase scrutiny of them — and not only continued their shenanigans but also tried to exploit their new positions.

It was utterly reckless — precisely the quality that made them a good fit with Trump.