Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, stood trial for tax and bank fraud charges on Tuesday in a district court in Alexandria.
Mr Manafort’s defence opened their first argument by laying the blame squarely at another former Trump campaign official – Rick Gates, the longtime Republican strategist’s former deputy.
Mr Gates has already pleaded guilty to charges of bank fraud in a plea deal and is likely to be a key witness for the prosecution.
This trial is the first real test for the Russia investigation, which is examining links between Trump campaign figures and the Kremlin.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the probe, claims Mr Manafort received $60 million for political consulting and lobbying work in Ukraine but failed to declare a high percentage of it to the taxman.
Mr Manafort, 69, is also accused of lying to banks to obtain millions more in loans after his employers, the pro-Russian party of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych lost power in 2014, and the income source dried up.
Prosecutors described the Ukrainian president as Mr Manafort’s "golden goose", claiming he sought to "keep his hands clean" by funnelling the vast sums into foreign bank accounts in Cyprus and St Vincents to evade taxes, Mr Mueller’s prosecutors told the court.
The defence sought to portray Mr Manafort as a talented political consultant who simply placed his trust in the wrong man.
Characterising the case as one of "taxes and trust", Mr Manafort’s lawyer Thomas Zehnle dismissed his failure to disclose wealth sources as "fail[ing] to check a box".
"Paul Manafort travels in circles most people will never know and a great deal of money was made in Ukraine," he told the court. "We don’t contend that he spent a lot of money on things most people can only dream of."
Mr Zehnle went on: "Here’s here because of one man – Rick Gates".
He told jurors that Mr Gates "filled the operational and finance role" while Mr Manafort was "busy working with lucrative contracts".
"He trusted Rick Gates," he added.
Mr Manafort’s legal team, which filled two rows, had previously unsuccessfully argued he could not have a fair trial just a few miles from the nation’s capital.
Outside the courthouse a handful of protesters had gathered carrying placards reading “you should be in jail”.
In the tightly packed court room however Judge TS Ellis reminded jurors Mr Manafort was viewed as innocent until prosecutors proved otherwise.
The political guru entered Alexandria’s district court in a smart black suit, supported by his wife and friend, and flashed a quick smile to waiting reporters.
Mr Manafort, who chaired Mr Trump’s presidential campaign from March to August 2016, has spent the last few weeks in jail after his bail was revoked over allegations of witness tampering.
Dressed in a smart black suit, there was little sign it had taken a toll save for a few more grey hairs. The trial is being closely watched in Washington, where the Russia investigation has divided opinion.
Mr Trump’s supporters argue it is a politically-motivated witch hunt, a failed first attempt at a prosecution could weaken support for Mr Mueller and his team.
The prosecution, led by US Attorney Uzo Asonye, was eager to focus on Mr Manafort’s financial dealings, ommitting to mention his most recent client, the US president.
Painting a vivid picture for the jury, Mr Asonye described Mr Manafort as a man who "believed the law did not apply to him" and used his foreign income to fund his "extravagant lifestyle".
Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia in 2016? | The four investigations
He detailed how "from 2010 to 2014 he spent this secret income on luxury items including more than $6 million in real estate", as well as $21,000 on a watch and a $15,000 customised jacket made from an ostrich.
Judge Ellis rebuked prosecutors for focusing on Mr Manafort’s spending rather than the allegations of the crime, telling them "It is not a crime to have a lot of money or be profligate with it".
The trial is scheduled to last around three weeks, with 35 witnesses expected to be called to give evidence
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