Paul Manafort, US President Donald Trump‘s former campaign manager, has been found guilty of eight financial crimes in the first trial victory of the special counsel investigation into the president’s associates.
A judge declared a mistrial on 10 other counts the jury could not agree on.
The jury returned the decision on Tuesday after deliberating four days on the charges of tax evasion and bank fraud against the former Trump campaign chairman.
The verdict came as the White House suffered another blow as Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other charges, saying he made payments to influence the 2016 election at the direction of a candidate for federal office.
Tuesday’s decision almost certainly guarantees years of prison for Manafort and established the ability of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team to persuade a jury of average citizens despite months of partisan attacks – including from Trump – on the investigation’s integrity.
Kevin Downing, Manafort’s lawyer, said his client was “disappointed” and was evaluating his options.
‘Legitimises Mueller investigation’
The charges against Manafort were among the first stemming from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The verdict raised immediate questions of whether the president would seek to pardon Manafort, the lone American charged by Mueller to opt for trial instead of cooperate. The president has not revealed his thinking but spoke sympathetically throughout the trial of his onetime aide.
After Tuesday’s verdict, Trump told reporters that Manafort is a “good man”.
“It’s a very sad thing that happened,” Trump said as he arrived for a rally in West Virginia. “It does not involve me,” he said. “It has nothing to do with Russian collusion … this is a witch-hunt and it’s a disgrace.”
Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher, reporting from outside the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, said that “no matter what the president says, this case has been seen as an important test” for the Mueller investigation.
“The verdict is being seen as legitimising Mueller’s investigation into collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign in 2016,” Gallacher added.
Trump and his campaign were only a small part of Manafort’s trial, as jurors instead heard days of testimony about Manafort’s finances and what prosecutors say was a years-long tax-evasion and fraud scheme.
Manafort did not testify
Manafort decided not to put on any witnesses or testify himself in the trial. His attorneys said he made the decision because he didn’t believe the government had met its burden of proof.
Manafort’s defence team attempted to make the case about the credibility of longtime Manafort protege Rick Gates, who served as the government’s star witness. They attacked him as a liar, embezzler and instigator of any crimes as they tried to persuade jurors that Manafort didn’t willfully violate the law.
Gates spent three days on the witness stand, telling jurors how he committed crimes alongside Manafort for years. Gates admitted to doctoring documents, falsifying information and creating fake loans to lower his former boss’ tax bill. He also admitted to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars without Manafort’s knowledge by filing fake expense reports.
But the government’s case wasn’t all about Gates. Prosecutors spent two weeks presenting a meticulous, document-based case before the jury as they sought to prove Manafort used offshore bank accounts to conceal millions of dollars in proceeds from his Ukrainian political consulting from the IRS and later turned to defrauding banks.
Overall, prosecutors say Manafort avoided paying more than $16m in taxes over several years.
The government read from Manafort’s own emails as they laid out their case, including messages where he personally directed withdrawals from the offshore accounts he never reported on his tax returns.
The trial in Virginia, is the first of two for Manafort. He faces a trial later this year in the District of Columbia on charges of conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, making false statements and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Ukrainian interests. He is also accused of witness tampering in that case.