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Manafort is first ex-Trump aide to go on trial in Russia probe

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Paul Manafort on Tuesday will become the first of President Donald Trump’s former aides to go on trial, accused of bank and tax fraud by federal investigators probing Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Despite a focus on financial crimes, the trial could yield politically damaging headlines about a man who ran Trump’s campaign for three months and attended a June 2016 meeting with Russians offering damaging information on Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton that is now a focal point of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 14-month-old investigation.

“My guess is you will see O.J.-type frenzy at this court event,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump aide and longtime Manafort associate, referring to the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case. “I really hope the president continues to watch and make public comments about this case.”

He said Trump could help the public understand what is at stake in Mueller’s investigation, which both Trump and Caputo have called a “witch hunt” aimed at ending his presidency.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that Manafort’s lavish spending on suits, homes and luxury items did not match the income declared on his tax returns and that he misled lenders when he borrowed tens of millions of dollars against New York real estate.

On Monday, prosecutors said in court filings that they intend to prove that Manafort earned more than $60 million lobbying for the former pro-Russia Ukrainian government and failed to report “a significant percentage” of that.

His lawyers are seeking to exclude evidence at trial that details Manafort’s political lobbying work in Ukraine, saying it would be “irrelevant, prejudicial and unnecessarily time-consuming.”

The charges largely predate the five months Manafort worked on the Trump team in 2016, some of them as campaign chairman.

Joshua Dressler, a law professor at Ohio State University, said the evidence against Manafort, 69, appears strong, but that he drew a favorable judge in the 78-year old T.S. Ellis, who is known to be tough on prosecutors, and said the politically charged climate increases the chances of a hung jury.

Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty, faces 18 counts. The nine bank fraud and conspiracy charges alone carry maximum sentences of 30 years each, and Judge Ellis noted in April that Manafort could be facing the rest of his life behind bars if convicted.

Given the strength of the evidence, however, some legal experts have suggested Manafort may be banking on an eventual pardon from Trump, who has called his former campaign chairman a “nice guy” who has been treated unfairly.

The trial, starting with selection of a 12-member jury, coincides with growing speculation that Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen may cooperate with federal investigators against the president.

Mueller’s team has estimated it could take 8 to 10 days to present its case to the jury, suggesting the trial may last at least three weeks.

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