Paul Manafort's associate, 'star witness' Rick Gates 'may testify ... he may not,' prosecutor teases at trial of ex-Trump campaign boss

Key Points
  • A federal prosecutor on Wednesday sparked a flurry of speculation that Rick Gates, the "star witness" expected at the trial of Republican lobbyist Paul Manafort would not actually take the stand and give testimony against his former business associate.
  • Gates has pleaded guilty to charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, who accuses Manafort of crimes related to his work for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.
Rick Gates, former deputy campaign manager for Donald Trump, exits Federal Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A federal prosecutor sparked speculation Wednesday that Rick Gates, the "star witness" expected to testify at the trial of former Trump campaign boss Paul Manafort would not actually take the witness stand against his longtime business associate.

Also Wednesday, prosecutors presented detailed evidence about Manafort's ultra-expensive tastes in clothing, silk rugs and watches, even as the trial judge pushed back hard on such tactics, saying prosecutors should not try to convict someone just "because they wear nice suits."

Judge T.S. Ellis III repeatedly prodded prosecutors to speed up the pace of their case, which is only in its second day. Toward the end of the day, a prosecutor told Ellis, "We fully anticipate resting our case in chief next week."

It was one such admonition by Ellis to accelerate the trial that led to an exchange about Gates, a former Trump campaign official himself who is considered crucial to the case being brought by special counsel Robert Mueller. Gates was Manafort's right-hand man in his consulting business.

"He may testify in this case, your honor, he may not," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia.

Hearing that, several reporters went scurrying "out of [the courtroom] like rats on a sinking ship," quipped Ellis, to notify their readers of the potential bombshell in the case.

Asonye quickly tried to walk back his remark.

"It's not to suggest that we're not calling him," he said.

The prosecution's possibly flip remark about Gates came a day after Manafort's lawyer in opening statements blamed the allegations against Manafort on "one man: Rick Gates."

Thomas Zehnle said Manafort had put "his trust in the wrong person," referring to Gates who pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiracy and making false statements.

Later, the prosecution called a custom suit maker and a menswear retailer to the witness stand, where each testified that Manafort was among their most important clients.

Manfort had spent more than $900,000 over a five-year span at the retailer's store, and paid for his purchases with transfers from overseas bank accounts — not by check.

FBI agent Matthew Mikuska earlier testified that Manafort had "closets full" of suits, and prosecutors showed jurors two invoices revealing a $66,000 purchase by Manafort for bespoke suits, and other invoices for silk rugs costing $160,000.

Ellis, showing his impatience at the drift of case, refused to let prosecutor Greg Andres ask the witness to total the annual invoices for those five years for the jurors' benefit.

"They can add," Ellis said.

He had also griped that prosecutors should limit their evidence to material that relates to Manafort's alleged crimes and not his expensive tastes.

Ellis didn't allow jurors to see photos of the suits, and had a tough time pronouncing the names of Manafort's tailors at Alan Couture. "If it doesn't say Men's Wearhouse, I don't buy it," Ellis sniped.

While the trial was going on just miles away, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday that "the president's been clear. He thinks Paul Manfort's been treated unfairly."

President Donald Trump earlier had tweeted that Manafort was being treated worse than legendary mobster Al Capone by prosecutors.

But Sanders would not answer whether Trump believes Manafort is innocent of his alleged crimes.

Manafort, 69, is accused of bank fraud and tax crimes in the Virginia case, the first of two planned federal trials on charges related to his consulting work from 2005 through 2014 for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.

Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty, is not accused of any involvement with Russians who allegedly tried to influence the 2016 presidential election.

However, the case against him has been brought by Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the election, and possible collusion by Trump campaign officials in that effort.

Ellis, started Wednesday's session in court by admonishing prosecutors and defense lawyers not to use the term "oligarchs" in referring to people mentioned in testimony.

He said oligarch is a pejorative term that means someone who wields despotic power.

"Principals in high schools are oligarchs in that sense," Ellis said. "Mr. [George] Soros would then be an oligarch by that definition."

"So would Mr. Koch," the judge added, referring to one, or both, of the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

Manafort has known ties to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate who is routinely referred to in the media as an oligarch. The FBI has said tax returns show that a company controlled by Manafort and his wife got a $10 million loan from Deripaska.

The FBI also has previously said that Deripaska funded Manafort's consulting work in Ukraine when it first began.

— Dan Mangan reported from Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and Kevin Breuninger reported from Alexandria, Virginia.