ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Before a packed federal courtroom, jury selection began Tuesday in the bank and tax fraud trial of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman.
Mr. Manafort, 69, is the first American charged in the inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, to maintain his innocence and to force the prosecutors to prove their case at trial. The other four Americans to have been charged by Mr. Mueller’s team, three of whom who also worked for Mr. Trump’s campaign, all pleaded guilty to various charges and are awaiting sentencing.
The charges against Mr. Manafort are not related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election or to attempts by Russian emissaries to make inroads into the Trump campaign, which Mr. Manafort led for three months before he was forced out because of allegations about his work for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine.
Nonetheless, the trial is being carefully watched because of Mr. Manafort’s role as the chairman of the Trump campaign and his longstanding ties with pro-Russia businessmen and politicians, which he developed over a decade of political consulting work in Ukraine.
Judge T.S. Ellis III of the United States District Court in Alexandria, Va., has told attorneys for both sides that he will not allow politics or anti-Russian sentiment to taint the jury. Prospective jurors cannot be questioned on who they voted for, he has ruled. And he has warned prosecutors and defense lawyers to steer clear of references to Russia as they present their evidence.
The court began choosing 16 jurors — 12 to be seated and four alternates. The trial is expected to last at least three weeks.
The judge gave the pool of 60 prospective jurors what he called “thumbnail sketches” of the accusations in the indictment. Mr. Manafort, wearing a black suit and seated with his lawyers, turned around to face the potential jurors, offering a slight closemouthed smile and looking away when the charges were called.
Judge Ellis questioned many of the potential jurors about any social or professional relationships with individuals within the Department of Justice and assured them he would take into account their August vacation plans, child care, and even pet care.
“I have pets,” he explained.
The prosecutors have marshaled what they claim is an overwhelming case that Mr. Manafort evaded taxes on tens of millions of dollars in income he garnered from his work in Ukraine. When that spigot of funds dried up, they claim, Mr. Manafort resorted to bank fraud to maintain a lavish lifestyle.
They have listed more than 400 exhibits and said they might call nearly three dozen witnesses, including Rick Gates, Mr. Manafort’s former right-hand man and Mr. Trump’s deputy campaign chairman. Mr. Gates has pleaded guilty to charges in the case and is cooperating with Mr. Mueller’s inquiry.
Mr. Manafort has maintained his innocence and has shown no public inclination to seek or agree to a plea deal. Mr. Manafort has said he knows nothing about any Russian involvement in the election.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly suggested that he is surprised at how harshly Mr. Manafort has been treated. In an interview with Fox News two weeks ago, he said the indictments against his former aides, including Mr. Manafort, were a “very sad thing for our country.”
He described Manafort, who helped the campaign marshal delegates for two months before moving up to campaign chairman, as a “a nice man.” He added: “You look at what’s going on with him, it’s like Al Capone.”
Since Mr. Mueller’s inquiry began in May 2017, a dozen Russian intelligence officers have been indicted on charges of hacking into Democratic Party and presidential campaign computer accounts. An additional 13 have been indicted on charges of illegally using social media to sow discord or try to influence American voters to vote for Mr. Trump.
The other four Americans who were indicted due to Mr. Mueller’s efforts have pleaded guilty. They include including Mr. Gates; Michael T. Flynn, a campaign adviser who became President Trump’s national security adviser, and George Papadopoulos, an unpaid campaign adviser who was targeted by emissaries who have been linked to Russian intelligence.