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Manafort trial: Star witness testifies against ex-Trump aide

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s ex-business partner has taken the stand against him in his trial on bank and tax fraud charges.

The defendant’s lawyers say Rick Gates embezzled millions of dollars from Mr Manafort’s consulting firm.

Gates is the prosecution’s star witness after he cut a plea deal this year and admitted two felony charges.

This is the first criminal trial to come from the Department of Justice-led inquiry into alleged Russian meddling.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly denounced the investigation as a political “witch hunt”, and argued that Mr Manafort is being treated more harshly than Prohibition-era Chicago mobster Al Capone.

What’s Gates telling the court?

On day five of the trial in Alexandria, Virginia, Gates was asked by the prosecutor whether he had committed any crimes with Mr Manafort, and he said: “Yes.”

He testified that Mr Manafort had directed him to lower taxable income by reporting overseas income as loans, according to US media.

Gates also reportedly told the court on Monday that he had been told by Mr Manafort not to disclose foreign bank accounts.

The witness also testified that he had helped the defendant file false tax returns, and had concealed 15 foreign accounts from the US government despite knowing it was illegal.

When asked why had lied, he told prosecutors he had done so at Mr Manafort’s request.

He added that he had stolen “several hundred thousand” dollars from Mr Manafort by submitting false expense reports.

The expenses payments to him were made from a foreign bank account in Cyprus, which Gates says they had attempted to hide from US officials.

He added that he had embezzled from other employers as well.

What’s at stake?

Mr Manafort, 69, could spend the rest of his life in prison if found guilty of all the fraud charges.

Gates, 46, is already facing up to five years in prison under the terms of a plea deal he struck with prosecutors in February when he pleaded guilty to two charges of conspiracy and lying to the FBI.

A judge could give him less time if prosecutors decide he has provided “substantial assistance” to the special counsel’s office.

What’s the background?

Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether any Trump aides colluded with an alleged Moscow plot to help elect him as US president, and whether there was any obstruction of justice.

But Mr Manafort is not charged with helping the Kremlin.

Prosecutors allege he dodged taxes on millions of dollars he made from his work for a Russia-friendly Ukrainian political party.

Gates, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and conspiracy in February, was originally charged as a co-conspirator in the case.

Three more things to read

Who else has testified?

Testimony from Mr Manafort’s tax preparer continued on Monday.

Accountant Cindy LaPorta – who was granted immunity from prosecution – said on Friday she suspected that Gates was misleading her about Mr Manafort’s finances.

But she said she was under the impression that Mr Manafort had been directing his deputies’ actions and “knew what was going on”.

On Monday, Ms LaPorta was asked by prosecutors if she had been aware of a $10m loan from Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska that the district attorney said was “supposedly made in 2006”.

She was asked if this was filed as taxable income, but told lawyers she was unaware of any such loans.

Who is Manafort?

Before joining Mr Trump’s team in summer 2016, Paul Manafort had worked on a number of Republican presidential campaigns, including Gerald Ford’s in the mid-1970s and Ronald Reagan’s from 1978-80.

As a lobbyist, he developed a reputation for representing controversial clients, including former Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who was accused of torturing, abducting and killing thousands of opponents.

Mr Manafort took over as chairman of the Trump campaign in May 2016 and aimed to present a more thoughtful candidate, who stuck to scripts instead of ad-libbing in campaign rallies.

He was in the hot seat when Mr Trump eventually won the Republican nomination, and organised the Republican convention in July 2016.

But Mr Manafort quickly faced allegations that he had not disclosed millions of dollars that he received for consultancy work he carried out in Ukraine for its then pro-Russian president.

At the same time, the Republican party changed the language in its manifesto regarding the conflict in Ukraine, removing anti-Russian sentiment.

Mr Manafort quit Mr Trump’s team in August 2016.

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