Prosecutors have been eager to show jurors that President Donald Trump‘s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort lived an opulent lifestyle as part of his ongoing criminal trial on financial fraud charges.
But their biggest obstacle so far has not been Manafort’s defense counsel — it’s been the judge.
Manafort heads to Virginia federal district court Thursday for the third day of his trial. It’s the first trial to be based on charges brought as part of special counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.
The federal district court judge presiding over the case, 78-year-old Reagan appointee T.S. Ellis, has been quick to snap at the U.S. attorneys in the early days of the trial. Namely, he has lashed them for presenting evidence of Manafort’s lavish spending habits that, he said, could prejudice the jury against him.
Manafort is “not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle,” Ellis said at one point.
“To parade all of this,” he said later, “seems to me unnecessary, irrelevant and maybe unfairly prejudicial.”
In his opening statement on Tuesday, prosecutor Uzo Asonye’s attempt to detail Manafort’s purchase of pricey suits, rugs, cars and home renovations was quickly was quickly censured by Ellis, who told Asonye to “focus on the elements” of the criminal charges.
“It isn’t a crime to have a lot of money and be profligate in your spending,” Ellis said.
Prosecutors have argued that the dozens of invoices from high-end clothiers, contractors and other vendors provide salient evidence for their position that Manafort sought to maintain a cushy lifestyle when he allegedly resorted to bank fraud in 2014.
They’ve used that position to offer new details about those spending habits, including that Manafort spent $15,000 on a jacket “made from an ostrich.” Prosecutors also brought in numerous witnesses to discuss invoices found during a search of Manafort’s Alexandria, Va., condominium, including a $160,000 invoice for two silk rugs.
They put Maximilian Katzman, manager of his father’s Manhattan luxury menswear shop Alan Couture, on the stand to discuss items such as a 2010 invoice for two suits and four pairs of trousers totaling $15,195. Manafort’s yearly invoices from 2010 to 2014 totaled over $920,000, Katzman said, noting that Manafort was the only customer of Alan Couture at that time who paid by international wire transfer.
Ronald Wall, a financial executive at famously expensive men’s store House of Bijan, confirmed that Manafort’s invoices from 2010 to 2012 at that shop totaled over $330,000. One 2010 invoice alone, tagged with a description for an assortment of jackets, suits, shirts and other items, came in at $128,000. Manafort paid that invoice with a wire transfer from a Cypriot bank, Wall said.
Other vendors for Manafort included contractor Steve Jacobson, who said Manafort paid him more than $3 million from 2010 to 2014 for various construction and renovation projects.
Ellis regularly interjected during witness testimony on Wednesday, keeping Manafort’s wealth and purchases from being illustrated in especially rich detail.
“That’s enough,” Ellis said when a prosecutor asked Katzman to total the annual invoices for those five years for the jurors’ benefit. “They can add.”
Prosecutors pushed back hard against Ellis’ claims in a court filing overnight, arguing “that Manafort had an expensive lifestyle that required lots of money to maintain is important proof as to why he would commit the bank frauds.”
They added: “The government is entitled to refute the common argument that a wealthy person has no need to commit bank fraud, by demonstrating that Manafort had grown accustomed to his material wealth.”