DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Paul Manafort's former business partner Rick Gates took the stand in Manafort's trial yesterday. Now, the reason this trial has gotten so much attention - one reason, at least - is that Manafort was President Trump's former campaign chairman. He is on trial now for bank and tax fraud charges. His former associate Gates answered yes when prosecutors asked if he had committed crimes with Manafort, and Gates went on to say that he misled accountants and lenders at Paul Manafort's direction. The goal was to reduce Manafort's taxes. Joining us now is Bill Coffield. He is an attorney who has represented some high-profile clients in Washington and has worked for more than two decades in the eastern district of Virginia, where this trial is playing out.
And Mr. Coffield, welcome.
BILL COFFIELD: Thank you.
GREENE: So how big of a bombshell was Rick Gates' testimony yesterday?
COFFIELD: Well, there was a little bit of it that was a bombshell, but a lot of it was expected. Mr. Manafort's attorneys in their opening gave a little bit of a preview of what they could expect, which was a smart thing for them to do. I think the thing that was the biggest bombshell that came out was that he was embezzling money from Mr. Manafort.
GREENE: That Gates was embezzling money from Mr. Manafort.
GREENE: So you're saying the biggest thing that we learned in the trial yesterday was actually that Rick Gates was doing some shady stuff.
COFFIELD: Yes, I think so because it's one thing to say that you're in lockstep with somebody, that you're in a conspiracy with somebody; you're in lockstep with them; you're doing things at - and what the prosecution is trying to portray is that Mr. Gates was doing everything at Paul Manafort's direction. Well, I don't think Mr. Manafort was giving him direction to take hundreds of thousands of dollars from him.
GREENE: Well, if that's the case, if the thing that interested you most was Rick Gates admitting that he did some illegal stuff, tell me about the prosecutor's strategy here. Is it a good idea to essentially start the testimony by having Gates admit that he, too, committed crimes?
COFFIELD: Absolutely. I think it was the smartest thing they could have done, simply because you don't want that to come out through the defense and give the jury the impression that somehow the government was hiding something from them.
GREENE: Oh, I see. This is prosecutors saying, we're going to tell you everything you need to know about our witness and not let a bombshell come later when the defense gets their turn.
COFFIELD: Correct, because start - a juror will sit there and start to question the government's credibility if they do something like that.
GREENE: So Gates took the stand after entering into this agreement with prosecutors. How does that influence whether the jury believes what he has to say about Paul Manafort?
COFFIELD: Well, it's obviously going to have some impact. Exactly what it does - I mean, you don't know what every individual juror's personal experience is, so you don't know what each individual one may do. However, it's got to have some impact, especially when you see that - I mean, another thing that I thought was very significant was that there were 20 meetings that he had. And when he sits down in a meeting with federal prosecutors, there are always FBI agents present. They will take notes, and they will then go ahead and do a FBI 302 report. Those reports will then be turned over to the defense, so they've got 20 reports to be looking at. And they can look at the inconsistencies that are in those reports, and they can see how Mr. Gates may be gradually moving toward what the prosecutors want him to say. And they can build that narrative toward his goal of trying to avoid jail time.
GREENE: OK, so Gates is going to continue testifying, and then we're going to have the defense team go after him. What are we going to expect? I mean, they're just going to literally try and tear down his credibility?
COFFIELD: Of course. And they've got a lot to work with. The - you know, he's admitted lying. He's admitted embezzling from Mr. Manafort. And apparently, he's admitted embezzling from other employers.
GREENE: What do you think - if there is anything that we're going to learn about Paul Manafort that we don't know already in terms of his business dealings - and this goes back to his time being a political consultant in Ukraine, and there's a lot here. But you're seeming to suggest that we might know a lot of this already.
COFFIELD: I think we do. I think we've already heard a lot about it. We know what the accusations are. There's an indictment out there that's very detailed. However, what the prosecution needs to do now is put some meat on the bones. They've got somebody whose credibility - talking about Rick Gates here - they've got somebody whose credibility has been severely wounded. They've got to get corroboration. There've got to be some documents tied in. And look; he was only on for less than an hour and a half yesterday, so, you know, there's a lot to come here.
GREENE: Can I ask you - I mean, Paul Manafort was President Trump's campaign chair in 2016. As I mentioned, I mean, this trial has to do with his own business dealings in the past. But inside that courtroom, if you're talking about the lawyers on both sides, the judge and the jury, is there really a way to lock all of the broader context out and not think about, you know, what role this man played in 2016 and in our electoral politics?
COFFIELD: I think there is. I mean, I think that - I think - look; both the government prosecutors are good lawyers, and the defense are good lawyers. They've got good lawyers on both sides of this, and so they're going to be very focused on the issues that are in front of them. And I really think the campaign can take a back seat.
GREENE: Bill Coffield is a lawyer in Virginia. He came in this morning to help us sort through the trial of Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chair. We really appreciate your time this morning. Thanks a lot.
COFFIELD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.