Paul Manafort trial is first court test for special counsel Robert Mueller

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Greg Nash

The trial of US President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is set to begin with tales of lavish spending, secret companies and millions of dollars of Ukrainian money flowing to his pocket from offshore bank accounts.

"Evidence or argument relating to Mr. Manafort's work for then-candidate Trump's campaign in 2016 or the Special Counsel's investigation of the campaign's alleged collusion with the Russian government is wholly irrelevant to whether Mr. Manafort's personal income tax returns were false, whether he willfully failed to file reports of foreign accounts, and whether he conspired to commit, or committed, bank fraud", defense lawyers wrote.

It was argued that Mueller was out of bounds in prosecuting Manafort as part of the Russia Investigation.

He faces two criminal trials, the first in Alexandria, Virginia, and another later in Washington.

Nor will they hear about the reason he's been jailed since last month after a judge revoked his house arrest over allegations that he and a longtime associate attempted to tamper with witnesses in the case. Witnesses have been told to avoid any mention of President Trump or anything related to his 2016 campaign.

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Muller has spent the last 14 months building the case against Manafort with a mountain of evidence seized from Manafort's and Gates's homes, computers and electronic devices, as well as documents obtained from financial institutions.

The heart of the government's case involves nine years of Manafort's lucrative lobbying and consulting for Ukraine and its former leader Victor Yanukovych, work the US government said Manafort should have registered with the Justice Department.

"It's all documented", said Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor who is now a partner at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm. "There is going to be exhibits showing what he used the money for - to buy various properties and luxury goods".

Mueller said the challenged exhibits, which include a memoranda, emails and photos reflecting tasks performed, are relevant to establish the extent of Manafort's work.

Given the strength of the evidence, however, some legal experts have suggested Mr Manafort may be banking on an eventual pardon from Mr Trump, who has called his former campaign chairman a "nice guy" who has been treated unfairly.

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Tad Devine is a consultant who worked with Manafort in Ukraine. He pleaded not guilty to these allegations, and the case is scheduled to go to trial in mid-September.

Ellis has since ruled that Mueller is acting within the scope of his investigation in pursuing charges against Manafort.

Prosecutors plan to produce almost three dozen witnesses during the trial, including Manafort's former associate Richard Gates, who is cooperating with the government after pleading guilty to lesser charges in February. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He denies the charges.

"This wasn't inherited by his rich uncle who dies in Ukraine or whatever", Akerman said. "The choice there is serving time in a NY state prison like Rikers Island, as opposed to a plush federal prison". And there's always the possibility that Manafort could take a plea deal during the trial if his defense falls apart, opting for a lighter sentence in exchange of telling Mueller's team anything he may know about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian Federation.

At a recent hearing, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who will preside over the trial, warned prosecutors to restrain themselves, noting the current "antipathy" toward Russia and how "most people in this country don't distinguish between Ukrainians and Russians".

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On the other hand, if he is convicted, it will "demonstrate to the public that President Trump's claims that the whole investigation is a witch hunt is not an accurate accusation", Dressler said.

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