ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) – The jury in the trial of Paul Manafort began deliberating for a third day on Monday about whether to convict the former Trump campaign chairman for financial crimes.
The case is the first to go to trial stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, although the charges largely predate Manafort’s five months working on Donald Trump’s successful campaign.
Manafort, a veteran Republican operative, faces up to 18 criminal charges related to bank and tax fraud and failure to disclose overseas bank accounts.
A Manafort conviction would undermine efforts by Trump and some Republican lawmakers to paint Mueller’s Russia inquiry as a political witch hunt, while an acquittal would be a setback for the special counsel.
In a break with convention, Trump weighed in on the trial on Friday, calling the case against Manafort at the federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, “very sad” and lauding his former associate as a “very good person.”
Before dismissing them on Friday, Judge T.S. Ellis reminded the jurors, who are not sequestered, to refrain from discussing the case or investigating it on their own during the weekend.
However, some legal experts expressed concern that Trump’s comments might still be viewed – inadvertently or otherwise – by jurors over the weekend.
Another headline on Friday that might grab the attention of jurors was about Ellis disclosing he had received threats related to the trial and was being protected by U.S. marshals. The jury was not present when he made those remarks.
“In a high profile case, the general assumption is that some outside information may accidentally reach a jury, despite jurors’ best efforts to avoid relevant news,” said jury consultant Roy Futterman.
“Given the judge’s statement, the jurors may reasonably assume that they may be at some risk which may change the tenor of their deliberations, perhaps raising tensions or speeding things up.”
On Thursday, the jury asked for a definition of “reasonable doubt” and clarification on the law governing the reporting of foreign bank accounts but did not ask any similar questions on Friday.
Shanlon Wu, who represented Manafort’s former protege Rick Gates before he pleaded guilty in February and cooperated with the prosecution, said the lack of questions on Friday might bode better for the prosecution than the defense.
“The fact that they were quiet on Friday indicated that they were working hard and working well together, and there was no dissension,” said Wu, who is no longer involved in the case and said he was speaking from knowledge of the publicly available evidence. “I think that’s a good sign for the prosecution.”
Wu said he still saw a chance of acquittals on the four counts of failing to disclose foreign bank accounts, citing the jury’s technical question on Thursday about the ownership and control threshold requirements for such disclosures.
Reporting by Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld in Alexandria, Virginia; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Dan Grebler and Bill Trott