The Most Blissfully Trump-Twitter-Free Place in America

The Most Blissfully Trump-Twitter-Free Place in America

Late on Wednesday morning, Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, stared directly at Rick Gates, his longtime deputy turned accuser, sitting on the stand a few feet away from him in the Alexandria courtroom where Manafort is on trial for an array of financial crimes. Already, Gates had spent eight hours over three days testifying about Manafort’s alleged scheme to hide millions of dollars in overseas accounts from the U.S. government. On Tuesday, Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, had forced Gates to acknowledge his own “secret life”: an affair with a woman in London, which he funded in part by stealing thousands of dollars from Manafort. On Wednesday morning, Downing had one last round of questioning for Gates, and he got right to the salacious point. Then all the lawyers approached the bench to speak with the crotchety senior U.S. District Court judge T. S. Ellis III, who is presiding over the trial. Downing, I’d say I made many mistakes, over many years,” Gates replied. And with that, his testimony was over. In the eight hours or so I was in the courtroom on Wednesday, the words “Trump” and “Russia” were never used. The judge, clearly, does not want the case to be about Trump, or Russia, or 2016. An era when basic facts were not subject to endless distortion and truth still mattered.

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No matter how theatrical or misguided the trial is, to spend a day in the courtroom is to be reminded of a different era in our civic life, when basic facts were not subject to the President’s endless, self-serving, and utterly misleading spin.

Illustration by Christian Northeast; Source photograph by Mark Wilson / Getty

Late on Wednesday morning, Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, stared directly at Rick Gates, his longtime deputy turned accuser, sitting on the stand a few feet away from him in the Alexandria courtroom where Manafort is on trial for an array of financial crimes. Manafort’s lawyer was about to get one final shot at Manafort’s betrayer, and he had saved something sensational for last.

Already, Gates had spent eight hours over three days testifying about Manafort’s alleged scheme to hide millions of dollars in overseas accounts from the U.S. government. Gates had told jurors about the vast payments that Manafort received—some sixty-five million dollars over four years, according to prosecutors—and concealed in accounts in Cyprus, the small Caribbean nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United Kingdom. In damning detail, Gates had recounted how his boss, a Reagan-era Republican operative who went on to work for a variety of unsavory dictators overseas before landing at Trump’s side, kept his money in secret bank accounts, just like the “Ukrainian businessmen” who paid Manafort the millions now in question.

On Tuesday, Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, had forced Gates to acknowledge his own “secret life”: an affair with a woman in London, which he funded in part by stealing thousands of dollars from Manafort. Downing had methodically pointed out that Gates, along with being the star witness in the special counsel Robert Mueller’s first prosecution, was also a liar, an embezzler, and a philanderer. Gates, who cut a plea deal with Mueller in order to avoid up to a hundred years in prison, had admitted it all. On Wednesday morning, Downing had one last round of questioning for Gates, and he got right to the salacious point.

“Do you recall telling the Office of Special Counsel you actually engaged in four extramarital affairs?” Downing asked.

Before Downing could even finish the question, prosecutors objected. Then all the lawyers approached the bench to speak with the crotchety senior U.S. District Court judge T. S. Ellis III, who is presiding over the trial. A machine played white noise to mask any sound from their conference. The spectators filling the court’s hard wooden benches buzzed. When Downing returned from the huddle, he made no further mention of affairs, rephrasing his question as a demand to know, more generally, whether Gates’s secret life had extended throughout the years covered by the case.

“Mr. Downing, I’d say I made many mistakes, over many years,” Gates replied. And with that, his testimony was over. Ashen-faced, Gates left the stand.

The trial of Paul John Manafort, Jr., is the first, but almost certainly not the last, to result from Mueller’s investigation. Whatever else it ends up proving, the proceedings have already shown in a most unflattering light the men President Trump chose to run his campaign and, in Gates’ case, organize his Presidential Inauguration. In less than two weeks, Mueller’s prosecutors have laid bare their lying, cheating, and stealing while fleecing a struggling post-Soviet country. Indelible images of greed and political cynicism have emerged, from Manafort’s fifteen-thousand-dollar ostrich jacket (part of the staggering fifteen million dollars prosecutors say he spent to maintain his lavish life style) to his unabashed influence peddling even after he was dumped by the Trump campaign. The President may have, inadvertently, provided the most obvious frame for understanding the nature of their crooked business when he complained, in a tweet on the opening day of the trial, that under Mueller, Manafort was treated worse…

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