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President Donald Trump suggested Wednesday his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort — on trial on federal bank fraud and tax charges — is being treated "worse" than "Public Enemy Number One" Al Capone.
Trump's comparison of the treatment of Manafort and the notorious gangster, part of tweet storm attacking special counsel prosecutor Robert Mueller, is a sharp departure from longstanding practice by presidents of not weighing in on a criminal case because of the risk of swaying a jury or causing a mistrial.
"It's inappropriate ... for the president of the United States to be making comments like this on Twitter on an ongoing trial," said Richard Serafini, a former federal prosecutor now in private defense practice in Florida. "It's just another violation of a norm, a longstanding norm," Serafini said. "I mean, it's just not done."
In that same online diatribe, Trump questioned why the "government" hadn't told him when he hired Manafort in 2016 to run his campaign that the longtime Republican strategist was under investigation.
Manafort was sent to jail in June, when a judge revoked his bond after allegations he tried to tamper with witnesses. He's been held in solitary confinement since then.
Mueller is investigating possible collusion by Trump campaign officials with Russians trying to interfere with the 2016 election. But the charges against Manafort, to which he has pleaded not guilty, are unrelated to that issue. Instead he is charged with crimes related to income earned for consulting work performed in Ukraine from 2005 to 2014.
The presidential tweets came as Manafort's trial was entering its second day in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia.
Serafini said that while Trump "probably did mean" his tweets "as favorable to Manafort," there was a risk of Trump's Twitter followers viewing Manafort in a negative light because of the juxtaposition with Capone, who ended up going to prison on tax-related charges, not for his bloodier crimes in Prohibition-era Chicago.
Gerald Lefcourt, a criminal defense lawyer in New York, said Trump's "tweets sound like a message is being sent to Manafort to stay strong and if things go bad I have your back."
Lefcourt said Trump appeared to be hinting at the possibility of a pardon for Manafort.
Neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers at that trial mentioned Trump's tweets to Judge T.S. Ellis III on Wednesday.
However, public comments in the past have led attorneys in a trial to request a mistrial.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon said that Charles Manson, who was then on trial for a series of killings carried out allegedly at his behest, "was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason."
Manson's lawyers then asked for a mistrial — which was denied.
Facing a backlash over his remarks, Nixon issued a statement saying "the last thing I would do is prejudice the legal rights of any person in any circumstances."
"The defendants should be presumed to be innocent at this stage of their trial," Nixon said.
Serafini, the former prosecutor, said he did not believe that Trump's tweets were grounds for a mistrial in Manafort's case. He said he has tried cases before Ellis in the past, and the judge could instruct jurors to not pay attention to anything they see about Manafort on Twitter or elsewhere.
Dan Mangan reported from Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and Kevin Breuninger reported from Alexandria, Va.