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Spotlight On Rick Gates In Manafort Trial


The admissions and the accusations keep piling up in the fraud trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. His longtime deputy and current prosecution witness, Rick Gates, has admitted to years of embezzlement, an affair and also that it was possible he stole money from President Trump's inaugural committee. Gates also testified that Paul Manafort personally directed the creation of false financial statements and hid income to evade taxes. But Gates' admissions about his own behavior gave Manafort's defense attorneys an opening. NPR's Ryan Lucas has been covering every twist and turn in this trial. And he joins us. Hi there, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: OK. So Gates was questioned about his own bad acts by prosecutors. And that just was the opening that Paul Manafort's defense attorneys really wanted, it seemed, right?

LUCAS: That's right. They have signaled that they want to go after Gates' credibility. And yesterday, when they were cross-examining him, they looked to shred exactly that. Manafort attorney Kevin Downing took Gates and the jury through, really, a lengthy list of wrongdoing that Gates has acknowledged, as well as new allegations that Downing threw at him. So Gates was forced to explain to the jury how he embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from Paul Manafort. Downing also brought up fraud allegations and what Downing repeatedly referred to as Gates' secret life.

So Gates acknowledged, on the stand, having an affair with a woman in London around a decade ago. Downing also dinged Gates on lies that he told to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators. And Gates struggled with this question even though he's pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Downing remarked at one point that Gates had excellent recall when questioned by prosecutors. But he couldn't seem to remember much now when he was confronted with questions about his own wrongdoing.

This line of questioning came to a head late in the afternoon when Downing asked Gates how, after all the lies that Gates has told and the fraud that he's committed, how he can expect the jury to believe him. And Gates said that the jury can believe him. And he said that he can - that they can because I'm here to tell the truth and take responsibility for my actions. Mr. Manafort had the same path. I'm trying to change, Gates said.

GREENE: So is that line going to work from Gates? I mean - and what does the prosecution have to do here, if anything, to rebuild his credibility?

LUCAS: Well, prosecutors have known that these sorts of attacks on Gates' credibility were coming. From the beginning of the trial, they have been eliciting testimony from witnesses and building a paper trail through emails and tax returns and other financial documents that they've showed the jury to support their case that also corroborates witness testimony more broadly. So the prosecution's case doesn't rest solely on Rick Gates. His testimony is crucial, however, to the question of Manafort's intent - what he was thinking, his willfulness in these actions.

Now Gates does have a plea agreement. He acknowledged yesterday that he could face decades in prison if convicted. And he said that under his deal, he could receive a shorter sentence in exchange for his testimony. If he lies, though, that's out the door. So his plea agreement and his motivations are something that the jury will have to weigh when it considers how credible they want to view his testimony.

GREENE: But you're saying - I mean, his testimony is still really important for the prosecution. Even though we're talking about all the admissions of his own guilt, he's added something to the case against Paul Manafort.

LUCAS: Absolutely, absolutely. We heard probably about seven or eight hours from Gates answering questions to prosecutors. And in almost granular level detail, we heard from him about this long-running scheme by Manafort to evade U.S. taxes. He said that Manafort personally directed him to falsify financial statements for bank loans, to hide foreign bank accounts from accountants and the IRS. And again and again, he testified that this was all done at Manafort's direction. It was done to avoid paying U.S. taxes.

But the prosecution also presented an email yesterday in which Manafort was furious about an estimated tax bill and complained that it was a disaster that he and Gates needed to talk about. So Manafort was not hands off. He was very much involved in the nitty-gritty of this.

GREENE: And this is moving quickly, it sounds like. I mean, is there an endgame in this trial?

LUCAS: Well, the defense says that it has about another hour or so of cross-examination of Gates this morning. The prosecutors will then have another chance to question Gates to undo any of the damage that was done to his credibility in the eyes of the jury, probably a couple of more government witnesses after that, including an FBI agent. But we're coming to an end closely we think.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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