For days, U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis has been cracking the whip at prosecutors in the Paul Manafort fraud trial, prodding them again and again to keep the case moving forward and to drop matters he considers irrelevant.
Prosecutors’ frustration with those exhortations spilled out publicly Monday in a series of prickly clashes in which Ellis snapped at one of special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, Greg Andres, and Andres sometimes lashed back at the judge — something lawyers rarely do.
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The day’s first significant altercation came as Andres sought to question Manafort’s former deputy, Rick Gates, about his travels, using his passport as a visual aid.
“Let’s go to the heart of the matter,” Ellis said.
“Judge, we’ve been at the heart. …” Andres replied, before the judge cut him off.
“Just listen to me. … Don’t speak while I’m speaking,” the judge said, sharply. He added that he didn’t see how the testimony on travel “amounts to a hill of beans” with regard to the charges against Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman.
The judge urged the two sides to agree on what dates Gates or Manafort traveled to Ukraine, to avoid tedious testimony. Ellis wondered aloud why that hadn’t been done before. The question seemed rhetorical, but Andres went ahead and answered it, somewhat snarkily.
“For one, no one’s asked for that before,” Andres said.
“I am,” Ellis shot back. “I’d like to find ways to expedite the trial in this matter.”
“We’ve done everything we can to move the trial along. And I think we’ve succeeded,” Andres insisted.
The clashes with the judge were unusual and could be risky, since some of them took place with the jury in the room. If jurors defer to the judge, they may view the prosecution as being out of line and overly aggressive. On the other hand, the protests allow the government lawyers a chance to display some passion about their case.
Minutes after the exchange about the passport, tensions flared again, after the judge took issue with a question that led to Gates’ giving a long answer about Ukraine’s political system.
The interruption clearly rankled Andres, who suggested that the judge was putting a straitjacket on the government’s case by constantly asking for agreements on what was and wasn’t in dispute between the prosecution and the defense.
“There has not been a single admission by the defense on any matter in this case,” Andres complained.
“We need to focus sharply,” the judge declared. “It certainly doesn’t help to offer the history of Ukrainian politics.”
The judge asked Andres whether he planned more such questions. The prosecutor didn’t seem to answer immediately but, after prodding by the judge, said, “No.”
Andres sought to press the issue, which led to Ellis shouting: “Next question. … Next question, Sir!”
The prosecutor demanded a sidebar conference out of earshot of the jury, which lasted about eight minutes.
When court resumed, the judge said calmly to the jury: “I didn’t exclude anything.”
Testimony continued for about another 10 minutes, before the jury was excused for the day. Then the fireworks began again.
Ellis said he wanted to give Andres an “opportunity to educate me” about the usefulness of the testimony about Ukraine’s political system and why wealthy individuals were paying millions of dollars to back Manafort’s work as a political consultant.
“I don’t see any earthly relationship” between testimony about “political contributions” and the alleged tax evasion on Manafort’s part, the judge said.
Andres took issue with calling the payments political contributions, and he appeared to fault Ellis for minimizing the significance of the payments in his comments in front of the jury
“These people are not making political donations,” the prosecutor said. Calling the donors “oligarchs” — a term Ellis banned the government from using in front of the jury last week — Andres explained that their livelihood was completely dependent on government-granted monopolies.
“That makes it even clearer to me” that it’s not relevant, the judge interjected. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re good or bad or oligarchs or crooks or mafia or whatever. … You don’t need to throw mud at these people.”
At that point, Ellis noted that Andres was looking at the lectern. “You’re looking down as if to say, ‘This is B.S.,’” the judge complained.
Andres seemed angered by the accusation and said the judge was leaping to conclusions. “We don’t do that to you,” the prosecutor said.
When the judge mentioned an earlier complaint he made about lawyers rolling their eyes, Andres interrupted again and the atmosphere grew tense. “I find it hard to believe I was both looking down and rolling my eyes,” he said.
Andres pressed on with his argument that the payments to Manafort were not political contributions, this time adding the charge that every time the government tried to elicit testimony about why the payments were made, “Your Honor stops us.”
“The record will reflect I rarely stopped you,” Ellis insisted.
“I will stand by the record,” Andres snapped.
“And you will lose,” the judge shot back.
The exchange then descended into an open squabble, as Andres asked for an example of testimony they’d brought out that was wasn’t relevant.
“I don’t have to give you an example. I want you to shorten it,” the judge declared.
The conflict seemed to de-escalate after that point.
“We’re all tired,” Andres said, while asking for “a slight bit of leniency” when questioning Gates, since the defense used its opening argument to attack his credibility.
“I didn’t want to be disrespectful,” the prosecutor said just before court recessed for the day.
“Don’t worry about it,” the judge replied. “I’m not concerned about it at all.”
Ellis said he recalled from his time as a lawyer the emotions involved in a high-stakes trial.
“I realize the stress … I remember the pressure. … I’m trying to minimize the stress time, is all I’m trying to do,” he said, prompting laughter from many and somewhat breaking the tense atmosphere that overtook the courtroom during his sparring with Andres.