What to Know
- Paul Manafort's bank fraud and tax evasion trial began Tuesday, with prosecutors saying he considered himself above the law
- President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter Wednesday that Manafort only worked for him for a "very short time"
- He also called on the attorney general to "stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now," in reference to the special counsel's investigation
President Donald Trump bluntly declared on Wednesday his attorney general should terminate "right now" the federal probe into the campaign that took him to the White House, a newly fervent attack on the special counsel investigation that could imperil his presidency. Trump also assailed the trial, just underway, of his former campaign chairman by the special counsel's team.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders scrambled to explain that Trump's tweet was "not an order" and the president was not directing his attorney general to do anything.
"It's the president's opinion," she said.
But Trump's early morning tweetstorm again raised the specter that he could try to more directly bring special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia-Trump election-collusion probe to a premature end. And it revived the idea that the president's tweets themselves might be used as evidence that he is attempting to obstruct justice.
Meanwhile, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said negotiations are continuing to have Trump sit down for questions from Mueller, though the lawyer said "I'm not going to give you a lot of hope that it's going to happen." He said both sides had exchanged proposals for conditions for such an interview, "and yesterday we got a letter back from them and now we're in the process of responding."
Trump has raged privately in recent days that both the forces of government and the media are trying to undermine him. That includes trumped-up charges against his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and distorting the outcome of the Helsinki summit to make it appear he was beholden to Russia, according to two Republicans close to the White House not authorized to speak about private conversations.
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Trump was closely monitoring news coverage of the Manafort proceedings, which provoked the spate of incendiary tweets, according to the two Republicans and two White House officials.
"The president's not obstructing, he's fighting back," said Sanders, dismissing the idea Trump's tweets could be tantamount to obstruction of justice.
The most inflammatory of Trump's tweets said, "This is a terrible situation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further. Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!"
The president's anger came the day after the start of the trial of Manafort, who is facing federal charges of bank fraud and tax evasion. And while Mueller did not bring any election-related charges against Manafort, the specter of the Russian investigation is hanging over the Alexandria, Virginia, courthouse. And Trump's White House.
"Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly prominent and respected political leaders," Trump tweeted. "He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn't government tell me that he was under investigation. These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion - a Hoax!"
Later the president invoked one of the nation's most notorious criminals, 1920s gangster Al Capone, and posed the question "who was treated worse" while airing his grievance about Manafort being held in solitary confinement ahead of a conviction. Manafort is in detention after having his bail revoked because of allegations that he was attempting to tamper with witnesses in his case. Federal prosecutors revealed last month that he was afforded unusual privileges while in detention.
Trump has spent more than a year trying to distance himself from his one-time top political aide, and to minimize the role Manafort played in his campaign. Trump's protestations aside, Manafort worked on the campaign during a critical six-month period in 2016, during which he led the effort to ensure Trump won the Republican nomination. He oversaw the early days of the general election effort.
Sanders said Trump wants Mueller's investigation concluded swiftly without intervention, though Trump has publicly mused as recently as May about interfering in the Department of Justice's oversight of the probe. "At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!" he tweeted then.
Trump has repeatedly belittled the probe as "a hoax," as those close to him suggest he feels that any talk of Russian interference tarnishes his electoral victory and delegitimizes his presidency.
One of the president's confidants deemed Trump in "a dark place," seething about the longlasting probe and the media's depiction of his White House under siege. Though long antagonistic toward the press, Trump's anger toward the media has only grown over the past month, as he has berated coverage of his Singapore and Helsinki summits, the possible prosecutorial cooperation of his former legal "fixer" Michael Cohen and the Mueller probe.
After complaining about the tough questions he received from American reporters in Finland, Trump has largely steered clear of the mainstream media, instead opting for safer spaces like an interview with ally Rush Limbaugh this week. From the White House briefing room podium on Wednesday, Sanders declined to denounce the harassment of a CNN reporter during a Trump rally in Florida on Tuesday.
The president's social media outburst renewed discussion of the significance of his tweets.
Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, stressed that Trump was just issuing an opinion, though he also said the White House believes "the investigation should be brought to a close."
"I guess, if we were playing poker — we're not — put up or shut up, what do you got?" Giuliani said. "We have every reason to believe they don't have anything."
When pressed by reporters on how she tells the difference between a presidential order or an opinion, Sanders said Trump makes his intentions "pretty clear."
But the line between registering an opinion or governing by tweet has bedeviled the White House from the start, even when former press secretary Sean Spicer declared tweets could be official White House statements. Earlier this year, Trump blindsided the Defense Department when he tweeted out a transgender ban for the military, prompting the Pentagon to slow walk the program.
Mueller already is interested in some of Trump's tweets to the extent they raise obstruction of justice concerns. Though experts believe obstruction by tweet is possible, prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a particular act got in the way of an investigation and that the person who did it intended to obstruct.
The president's tweets on Wednesday were greeted warily on Capitol Hill, with most lawmakers, regardless of party, urging Trump to let the probe run its course.
No. 3 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota said, "The idea that they should truncate it doesn't make sense to me." Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut went much further, declaring. There is now highly credible evidence that the president of the United States is committing obstruction of justice in real time, right before our eyes."
Meanwhile, during the second day of Manafort's financial fraud trial, witnesses testified Wednesday that he personally directed millions of dollars in international wire transfers to pay for high-end suits and more than $3 million in improvements at his various houses.
The testimony was aimed at bolstering the prosecution's argument that Manafort hid millions of dollars in income from the IRS and used the funds for a lavish lifestyle. The witness accounts were also intended to contradict Manafort's lawyers, who have signaled they will pin blame for any illegal conduct on his longtime deputy, Rick Gates.
The prosecution's focus on Manafort's personal finances — at times laid out in painstaking detail — underscored the vast amount of documents accumulated by special counsel Robert Mueller's team in their case against the longtime political consultant. But it also tried the patience of U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who repeatedly scolded the government's attorneys for what he said was excessive and unnecessary information.
Ellis, who warned prosecutors against using the word "oligarchs" to describe wealthy Ukrainians, several times admonished them for spending so much time documenting Manafort's extravagant lifestyle.
It's not a crime to be wealthy, he noted. And the pejorative term "oligarchs" and evidence of home renovations aren't necessarily relevant to the charges in question, he added.
"The government doesn't want to prosecute somebody because they wear nice clothes, do they?" Ellis said amid testimony that Manafort had spent more than $900,000 on clothing from a boutique retailer where he was one of only about 40 clients. "Let's move on."
Ellis even called out lawyers from both sides for rolling their eyes.
The trial is the first courtroom test for the special counsel, who was tasked last year with investigating Russia's efforts to sway the 2016 election and to determine whether the Trump campaign was involved. So far, Manafort is the lone person to stand trial as a result of the ongoing probe, even though the charges of bank fraud and tax evasion are unrelated to possible collusion.
Still, the trial has pulled back the curtain on the former lobbyist who steered Trump's election efforts for a time, including descriptions of Manafort's $15,000 jacket made of ostrich and the more than $6 million in cash he put toward real estate. One witness, Maximillian Katzman, testified that Manafort spent more than $900,000 at his boutique retailer in New York. He said Manafort was the only business client of his who paid via international wire transfer.
An FBI agent described the July 2017 raid on Manafort's Virginia condominium, saying he knocked multiple times before entering with a key and finding Manafort inside. The searches described by agent Matthew Mikuska found expensively tailored suits and documents related to other luxury items allegedly bought by Manafort, including two silk rugs bought for $160,000 paid from offshore accounts.
But when prosecutors introduced photos of Manafort's high-end condo and expensive suits, Ellis interrupted so as to limit the growing list of evidence jurors would have to consider.
"All this document shows is that Mr. Manafort had a lavish lifestyle," Ellis said. "It isn't relevant."
On the term "oligarchs," Ellis said use of the word implied that Manafort was associating with "despicable people and therefore he's despicable."
"That's not the American way," the judge said.
Prosecutor Greg Andres argued that documenting Manafort's spending for the jury was important to the case.
"Judge, this is not an effort to prove Mr. Manafort lived lavishly," Andres said. "It's evidence of his income."
Ellis seemed to grow impatient after being told that attorneys on both sides were seen rolling their eyes after leaving the bench or in response to his rulings. The lawyers' facial expressions, Ellis said, appeared to show them thinking: "Why do we have to put up with this idiot judge?"
The proceedings clearly caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who defended his 2016 hiring of Manafort and suggested Manafort was being treated worse than mobster Al Capone. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president indeed felt Manafort had been treated unfairly.
"Why didn't government tell me that he was under investigation," Trump tweeted Wednesday. "These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion - a Hoax!"
Manafort's attorneys are putting the blame on Gates, Manafort's business associate.
Gates was expected to be the government's star witness at trial, but prosecutor Uzo Asonye said he could not say with certainty whether Gates would or would not testify. He later clarified to say that that uncertainty applies to any witness, not just Gates, as the prosecution team assesses the pace of the trial and the evidence it needs.
Asonye also told Ellis that prosecutors expect to rest their case next week, noting that they are "ahead of schedule."
Testimony was to resume Thursday morning with witnesses including bookkeepers and accountants.
Manafort has a second trial scheduled for September in the District of Columbia. It involves allegations that he acted as an unregistered foreign agent for Ukrainian interests and made false statements to the U.S. government.