Trump Asks Sessions To End Mueller Investigation, As Manafort Trial Enters Day Two | WBEZ
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Trump Asks Sessions To End Mueller Investigation, As Manafort Trial Enters Day Two

Updated at 12:30 p.m. ET

President Trump asked his attorney general to stop Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation Wednesday morning, as the first trial stemming from that investigation entered its second day.

Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, is on trial in Alexandria, Va., for bank and tax fraud charges, not, as Trump noted in a Twitter thread Wednesday morning, for "collusion."

"[Manafort] worked for me for a very short time. Why didn't government tell me that he was under investigation," Trump wrote. "These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion - a Hoax!"

Trump called the Mueller investigation a "terrible situation" and said Attorney General Jeff Sessions should "stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further."

Sessions recused himself from all matters related to the Justice Department's investigation of Russia's interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination with Trump campaign aides, early last year, because of his adviser role in Trump's campaign. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has been overseeing Mueller's probe since the special counsel was appointed last summer, and he too has recently come under fire by conservative lawmakers in Congress.

It's not the first time Trump has mentioned wanting to cut the Russia probe short. He reportedly ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller last summer, an order the president eventually walked back when McGahn threatened to quit. Mueller has been interested in the question of whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice at any point, since at least last June, and Wednesday's tweets are sure to bring those questions back.

The president tweeted again, two hours later, that Manafort was being treated worse than infamous gangster Al Capone.

"Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and 'Public Enemy Number One,' or Paul Manafort, political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement - although convicted of nothing?" Trump said. "Where is the Russian Collusion?"

Manafort is in jail, in suburban Virginia, after his house arrest was revoked earlier this summer when Mueller alleged that he was attempting to tamper with witnesses. He is not, however, in solitary confinement, which is an isolated cell normally used as a disciplinary tool.

He is in a unit separate from the general population, so that he can be protected, as a high-profile inmate.

In court filings that described the circumstances of Manafort's confinement at a different facility farther from Washington, D.C., prosecutors described Manafort's situation as "a private, self-contained living unit, which is larger than other inmates' units." In it, Manafort has "his own bathroom and shower facility, his own personal telephone, and his own workspace to prepare for trial."

In monitored phone calls while at the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va., Manafort had told others he is being treated like a "VIP," prosecutors said.

Day Two

Rick Gates, a former associate of Paul Manafort, leaves the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., after a February hearing. He is expected to be the government's star witness at the Manafort trial in Virginia.
    (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Manafort trial began its second day Wednesday, opening with testimony from a political consultant who did work with Manafort in Ukraine, and an unnamed FBI agent.

The trial's opening day, on Tuesday, was a blur: the jury was seated, both sides presented their opening statements and the government's first witness took the stand.

Judge T.S. Ellis III said before the trial began that he wanted the proceedings to wrap in three weeks or less, and Tuesday's proceedings lived up to the Alexandria, Va., courthouse's reputation as a "rocket docket."

Manafort's trial on bank and tax fraud charges is the first to stem from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In its opening statement Tuesday, the government portrayed Manafort as a man who led a lavish lifestyle and held a disregard for American financial law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye said Manafort made tens of millions of dollars as a political consultant in Ukraine but used offshore shell companies and foreign bank accounts to avoid paying U.S. taxes on much of the money.

Manafort used the money he allegedly shielded from authorities to buy multi-million-dollar properties, antique rugs and luxury cars, Asonye said. In one case, Manafort even purchased a $15,000 jacket "made from an ostrich."

Asonye said Manafort didn't just lie to the Internal Revenue Service, he also lied to his own bookkeepers to avoid paying taxes and to banks in an effort to qualify for loans he wouldn't otherwise have been approved for.

"All of this was willful," Asonye said. "Paul Manafort knew about the law."

Manafort's lawyers presented a very different picture.

Defense attorney Thomas Zehnle focused much of his opening statement on the question of trust, particularly the trust that Manafort placed in his former right-hand man, Rick Gates.

Gates and Manafort worked closely together for years, including in Ukraine.

Gates was indicted the same time as Manafort and initially fought the charges. But he pleaded guilty in February and has been cooperating with the special counsel's office. He is expected to be the government's star witness.

Zehnle placed the blame for Manafort's current troubles on Gates' shoulders.

"We're primarily here because of one man — Rick Gates," Zehnle said.

He said Gates took advantage of his position overseeing day-to-day operations of Manafort's consulting firm. He accused him of embezzling millions of dollars and manipulating transactions to "line his own pockets."

Gates' guilty plea, in Zehnle's telling, is nothing more than an attempt by Gates to save his own skin.

Activists hold signs — one referencing special counsel Robert Mueller — outside the Alexandria, Va., courthouse as Manafort's trial began this week.
    (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The government's first witness on Tuesday was Tad Devine, a political consultant who has done work for the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry. Devine also worked closely with Manafort on consulting work in Ukraine.

Under government questioning, Devine described Manafort as very much the hands-on boss in their Ukraine work, testifying that "Paul was in charge" of business operations.

Under cross-examination, Devine also portrayed Manafort as a skilled political operator and a hard worker.

"It was a tremendous amount of work, and I have to say, Paul worked harder than anyone," Devine said. "There were emails sometimes throughout the night."

On Wednesday, the government says it will call another political consultant, Daniel Rabin, to take the stand, as well as an unnamed FBI agent.

In releasing the jurors on Tuesday, Ellis warned them against watching the news or talking to family about the case, even though there was sure to be "intense curiosity" about it. He also told them not to read, watch or listen to any news reports about the trial.

He urged them, in closing, to "keep an open mind."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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