Here’s what’s on docket for Paul Manafort’s pretrial hearing
One of the most consequential hearings before former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort goes to trial is unlikely to have him there to witness it.
On Friday morning, Judge TS Ellis will review several requests from defense attorneys and federal prosecutors — including new details on why investigators swept Manafort’s apartment and a storage unit for documents related to powerful Ukrainians and Russians he worked for — as they set the terms of his bank fraud and financial crimes trial in Virginia.
The trial, the first of two criminal proceedings for Manafort, is set to begin July 25 and last about three weeks. But he is excused from being at the pretrial hearing in person Friday.
This would have been the first time he had appeared following his imprisonment in a Virginia regional jail two weeks ago after he was accused of contacting witnesses. Manafort likely would have appeared in the courtroom clad in a jail-issued jumpsuit, rather than his typical pinstripe business suit, as is standard in federal proceedings before a judge outside of a jury trial.
But his lawyers said earlier this week that the two hours of travel each way from Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia, to the Alexandria courthouse would be excessive. The judge agreed Manafort didn’t have to come to court Friday, as is his right.
The hearing begins at 9 a.m. and could last hours. On the schedule are several requests from both sides:
Manafort has accused a federal investigator of leaking details of the investigation and grand jury secrets to the media. Ellis must decide whether he’ll schedule a hearing so both sides can argue about the alleged leaks, but the leak accusations are likely to fly in the courtroom anyway.
In previous filings, Manafort claimed that lead prosecutor Andrew Weissmann met with four journalists from The Associated Press around the time the news organization published stories about Manafort’s so-called “black ledger” of secret Ukrainian payments.
Manafort claims leaks like these that fuel the media swarm deprive him of a fair trial. Details of the black ledger may come up for another reason: It’s mentioned in a contentious but thorough search warrant investigators used last year that’s also a topic for the hearing.
The real fireworks may happen as prosecutors describe sweeping Manafort’s Alexandria condominium and storage unit last year. Manafort has said those searches violated his Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Ellis will have to decide whether to throw out the evidence. A federal judge in D.C. already told the prosecutors they could use this material for the Washington trial, in which Manafort faces charges of conspiracy to launder money, foreign lobbying violations and witness tampering.
Earlier this week, prosecutors preparing for Ellis revealed many more details in those warrants, largely about how closely Manafort’s finances were tied to the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Ukrainian politicians whom the FBI believes are corrupt.
The warrants describe how Manafort fell millions of dollars into debt, both to Deripaska years ago and while he worked for Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016 and allegedly hid money in shell companies and foreign accounts.
Both Manafort and special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors would like to prevent a jury from hearing about Manafort’s work for Trump. While the prosecutors fear Manafort’s team might accuse them of singling him out because of Trump, Manafort also wants to stay far away from politics during the trial. Ellis will weigh in.
In general, both sides agree the 12 jurors plus alternates shouldn’t be allowed to consume news while deciding the case. To pick a jury, the legal teams want to send dozens of potential jurors questionnaires that probe their financial histories and whether they have ties to Ukrainians or the special counsel’s office. There isn’t disagreement between the two sides, but Ellis still has to sign off and could tweak the jury paperwork.
Ellis is likely to check in on the progress that’s been made in combing through the evidence before trial. In particular, he’s likely to ask about the amount of evidence prosecutors have turned over to the defense team.
What will Ellis say about the accusation that Manafort attempted to contact witnesses this year? Though the federal judge in D.C. overseeing his case there revoked his bail, prosecutors told Ellis what happened. This judge had previously ordered Manafort not to contact “directly or indirectly” any potential witnesses or victims in the case.
In spite of the list of weighty topics, the hearing could be lively. The last time Manafort went before Ellis, the judge questioned whether the special counsel’s office had a political vendetta aimed at President Trump. His remarks lit up Mueller’s Republican doubters, including the president. Though Ellis ultimately decided the case was a fair one and fell within Mueller’s authority, the septuagenarian judge has a flair for drama — and for long stories about his days as a pup lawyer — when he speaks from the bench.