In a brief exchange with Judge T.S. Ellis III, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort declined yesterday to take the stand in his own behalf. His defense then declined to present its own case and moved the trial to closing arguments. Given the highly damaging evidence offered by the prosecution, there is little that will be offered to actually refute the charges. The decision to waive testimony and a defense case can be a strong strategic choice in a case where the defense savaged the prosecution. That is not this case.
As I have previously discussed, even if Manafort, 69, succeeded in tainting his former aide Rick Gates, Manafort still came off worse at trial. More importantly, the defense did little to refute documents and Manafort’s own words in emails on the underlying accounts and transactions. This includes evading taxes on at least $16.5 million in income from his sources in Ukraine and more than $20 million in allegedly fraudulent bank loans.
Defense lawyers made a special effort, including submitting a last-minute brief, to persuade the judge to throw out four bank fraud charges involving $16 million in loans that Mr. Manafort obtained from a small Chicago bank in late 2016 and early 2017. Richard Westling, one of Mr. Manafort’s lawyers, argued that the bank, Federal Savings Bank, was not defrauded because its chairman, Stephen M. Calk, was determined to do business with Mr. Manafort, despite questions about Mr. Manafort’s wherewithal. He also argued that bank officials were well aware of Mr. Manafort’s true financial situation.
The last few days of the trial included emails where Manafort sought to secure a high level position in the Trump Administration for Federal Savings Bank Chairman Stephen M. Calk, who loaned him millions on highly questionable submissions. That was one of the few connections drawn to the campaign in the trial.
Manafort made the standard Rule 29 motion for acquittal for lack of evidence. Notably, Ellis (who has been controversial in his criticism of the prosecution) said that he thought Manafort made “significant argument” for acquittal on one set of bank-fraud allegations. However, he said the decision would have to be left to the jury.
The failure to take the stand is certainly Manafort’s right, but it is folly to pretend that it does not taint a defense with a jury. Most jurors do not understand why an innocent man would not want to take the stand on his own behalf. Martha Stewart is a good example of the perils of such a strategy. The failure to present a defense or to testify only reaffirms the view of many that Manafort is playing for a pardon. His two trials could be efforts to knock down as many counts as possible while remaining both silent and loyal to the President. It must have been viewed as a good sign when Trump recently compared the treatment of Manafort to the treatment of Al Capone. If Trump decides to go into a full attack mode against Mueller, Manafort likely hopes that he could be a beneficiary among the possible pardons.
As I have previously stated, I believe that chances for conviction on some of these counts is quite high. This strategy own magnifies those odds against Manafort.