The trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort began Tuesday with jury selection, sending special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into a new phase with its first case before a jury.
Manafort arrived at the courthouse Tuesday morning wearing a black suit, with his hair neatly parted. Manafort’s trial, in which he faces charges on 18 counts of violating tax and banking laws, is a high-profile test of the Mueller team’s investigation into Russian election interference in 2016.
Beginning jury selection, Judge T.S. Ellis gave the pool of 65 potential jurors an overview of the charges against Manafort, though he reminded the group that the indictment “is not evidence of any guilt whatsoever.”
The pool was nearly evenly split between men and women. The group is predominantly white, with fewer than a dozen non-white potential jurors. Most were comfortably middle-aged.
Nine potential jurors indicated that they have connections to the Justice Department, including four who said they were current or former federal employees. Two joked that they were “recovering attorneys.” All affirmed that they could handle the case without any bias.
None said they knew Manafort, his lawyers or their law firms.
One younger woman said she knew Justice Department attorneys from her work at a Silicon Valley-based tech company. Another man brought a John Grisham novel into the courtroom.
Trial could last weeks
Opening arguments in the case are likely this week, and the trial is expected to last several weeks.
Manafort was a senior Trump campaign aide and he led the campaign for several months, but the charges are not directly related to campaign activity, as the White House has repeatedly emphasized.
“The judge has very strictly instructed no mention of Paul Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign, no mention of Trump, Russia or collusion,” senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News Tuesday morning. “This trial obviously centers on matters that have nothing to do with the campaign.”
While Trump has repeatedly railed against Manafort and the “witch hunt” on Twitter in recent weeks, he has not tweeted about Manafort specifically in more than a month, when he said Manafort received a “tough sentence” after his bond was revoked over allegations of witness tampering.
Manafort faces a maximum of 305 years in prison if he is convicted on all charges. Prosecutors say Manafort hid millions of dollars in income from lobbying for Ukrainian politicians, failed to pay taxes while spending the money on US real estate and luxury purchases and lied to banks to take out more than $20 million in loans.
Before jury selection got underway, Ellis said that he did not plan to offer decisions on Tuesday about all of the documents that Manafort’s team wants to keep out of trial. They hope to prevent jurors from seeing some documents and photos from Manafort’s lobbying work in Ukraine.
Instead, the judge gave broad directions to the prosecutors: Try to reduce the number of Ukrainian documents given to the jury, use testimony to add context and don’t refer to individual documents in opening statements.
Ellis said he thinks “the government’s correct” in using the documents to broadly show how Manafort made his money. Prosecutors say Manafort made $60 million from his work.