The Washington swamp has a new monument to its own excess: a $15,000 ostrich skin jacket.
Paul Manafort’s now notorious garment was the star exhibit in the first week of the trial of President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman on tax and bank fraud charges, in the first courtroom test for special counsel Robert Mueller.
The case is unfolding as a “follow the money” chase in which prosecutors argue that Manafort’s lust for the ostentatious trappings of wealth financed by millions of dollars in profits from a once-lucrative lobbying business eventually outstripped his means.
“Here is what they are trying to do – they’re trying to show that he lived way beyond his reported means, reported X on his taxes, he spent X plus Y, therefore his taxes can’t possibly be right,” said Richard Serafini, a former Justice Department trial attorney.
While the trial is following the classic contours of a tax case, it is also taking place in a rarely politicized environment owing to Manafort’s former association with the President.
And for those outside the courtroom it is turning into an implicit indictment of the sleaze and greed swilling around Washington itself and the culture of influence peddlers who cut multimillion-dollar contracts to counsel shady foreign autocrats.
Adding to the intrigue of a trial that has busted expectations of a dull trudge through Manafort’s financial records is the fact that it is being conducted under the auspices of Mueller.
The special counsel is renowned as a reticent, dutiful, lifelong public servant whose own flamboyance in matters of dress never extends past a crisp white shirt and dark suit. But he’s also got a reputation as a relentless scourge of corruption ,and in the Manafort case he’s effectively conducting a forensic examination on the excesses of life in Washington itself, turning the creatures of the swamp against each other – all from inside the Beltway.
Though the White House argues that the case has nothing to do with Trump, it is also ironic that Manafort, who masterminded the delegate strategy for a man who vowed in 2016 to “drain the swamp,” is being portrayed as one of the capital quagmire’s most debased big beasts.
A giant M-shaped flower bed
Manafort has denied all the charges against him and the defense has signaled that it will attempt to shatter the credibility of the government’s star witness, former Manafort associate Rick Gates, who has cut a plea deal with Mueller and is expected to take the stand next week.
His testimony could turn out to be the pivotal moment in the case.
But it will struggle to replicate the sensational response outside the courtroom provoked by the introduction of the ostrich jacket as evidence.
The item emerged as emblematic of the strutting affectation and ravenous consumption of Washington insiders who have profited from association with the institutions of politics and government.
The jacket is destined to go down in history alongside other famous artifacts of Washington vainglory, including the lavish Scottish golf trips of mega lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the $90,000 stashed in the freezer of former Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana.
But the jacket was far from the only example of Manafort’s alleged decadence. Apparently ignorant of the Shakespearean maxim that the “apparel oft proclaims the man” and that the “gaudy” is to be avoided, he also owned an $18,500 python skin jacket.
The sharp-suited former lobbyist packed his wardrobe with expensive items from the House of Bijan, often referred to as the most expensive men’s store in the world, and he spent over $900,000 at custom garment retailer Alan Couture, according to evidence at the trial.
His pricey shopping lists also contained a $21,000 watch, a new 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550 worth about $123,000 and real estate.
One witness, Virginia-based builder Douglas Deluca, testified that one home improvement project paid for with offshore accounts included an outdoor kitchen featuring soapstone countertops, antique brick and a pergola.
Manafort’s hideaway in the Hamptons included a $10,000 karaoke system, a giant flower bed in the shape of an “M” and one of the biggest ponds in the upscale seaside community, witnesses said.
Manafort not on trial for ‘lavish lifestyle,’ judge insists
Lobbying for and counseling foreign leaders – as Manafort did for the party of pro-Russian former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, is not illegal.
But in the indictment, Manafort was accused of concealing the huge windfall from his work and of not declaring to the US government that he was working for a foreign one.
At one point, Judge T.S. Ellis prevented the prosecution from showing some photos of Manafort’s luxury property to the jury, as he continued a quest to move the trial along swiftly.
“Mr. Manafort is not on trial for having a lavish lifestyle,” Ellis said. (Jurors will be allowed to see all evidence submitted, including the jackets, receipts and pictures of his Hamptons grounds, once deliberation begins.)
Baked Alaska and birthday cake: Memorable lines from the Manafort trial judge
Prosecutors insist that his lifestyle is integral to their argument that once his lobbying income dried up, he turned to criminal schemes and paid for his life of luxury with wire transfers from accounts hidden from the Internal Revenue Service.
Pivoting from their tale of Manafort’s gilded existence, they have also called bookkeepers and accountants who worked with him who have testified that they did not know about his secret source of funds.
“As a prosecutor I would say what I have heard. It seems like the case is going rather smoothly for the prosecution, which is probably all that they could hope for,” said Serafini.
More swamp creatures in trouble?
As the trial lifted the lid of the lobbying culture in Washington, it also emerged this week that Mueller has referred inquiries about several other lobbyists to the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
The cases concern longtime Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta and former Republican Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota and his work for Mercury Public Affairs, sources said.
One source said Obama White House counsel Greg Craig, a former partner at law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, is also part of the inquiry.
None of the entities involved have been charged with wrongdoing, and there is no indication the SDNY inquiry will result in criminal charges.
Manafort, who was jailed pending trial for infringing bail conditions after being accused by Mueller of witness tampering, has attended each day of the trial.
He is learning the indignities visited on a fallen high roller. His bespoke wardrobe and taste in home renovations have made him a figure of ridicule. His plight recalls the statement made by Abramoff at the end of his trial in 2008: “I have fallen into an abyss,” the former uber-lobbyist said. “My name is the butt of a joke.”
CNN’s Marshall Cohen, Katelyn Polantz, Jeremy Herb and Kara Scannell contributed to this story.