ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The air in the courtroom had gone stale by early afternoon. It was day six of Paul Manafort’s trial, the first grand event launched by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The mood had been buoyant and expectant at the start of Tuesday. With people gathering outside the courthouse as early as 6:30 a.m., some women—private citizens—took it upon themselves to police a long and unruly line of folks who seemed a touch too inclined to cut. (“Lines are the only democratic thing we have left!” Jana Valentiner told one offender as she ushered her back to her rightful place.) But after hours of listening to the prosecution make its case against Manafort—We get it, the room seemed to sigh, he doctored the loan agreement, for the loan that never existed—those once eager viewers trudged back from lunch as though on trial themselves.
Then stood Kevin Downing to dazzle us. Minutes into his cross-examination, Manafort’s tall, silver-haired attorney stared down the prosecution’s star witness, Rick Gates—Manafort’s confidant turned betrayer—and asked about his “separate, secret life.”
“What is it called in London? A flat?” Downing asked. Yes, a flat: Gates admitted to keeping one in London around 10 years ago for an extramarital affair.
And suddenly everyone seemed awake again. Bug eyes and smirks abounded. A mother-daughter pair sitting near me tried to stifle a gasp. Gates went on to deny having used funds he had embezzled from Manafort to finance the affair—the flat, the first-class flights, the restaurants. But the room was already stirring: a secret life!
It was the sort of salacious detail and drama many who had entered the Eastern District Court of Virginia that morning had likely hoped for, if in spite of themselves. Indeed, Gates’s testimony was supposed to be the buzziest stretch of Manafort’s trial. As my colleague Franklin Foer aptly put it on Tuesday, Gates once “worshipped” his boss, and was now there to help prove Manafort’s alleged tax and bank fraud beyond a reasonable doubt. But it would take the craftiest writer to make those charges sexy: One middle-aged woman told me she’d come to watch because she was worried about “the future of democracy in this country,” a stake that seemed less and less commensurate with every dissection of an email in which Manafort had, say, instructed Gates to convert an invoice in Microsoft Word.
And perhaps that was the most troubling part. Not that Manafort (and Gates) had allegedly committed fraud as a way of life, with no expense too small to forge and no friend too dear to bilk. But that we felt we’d been promised a personal stake—the future of democracy!—that, by the end of the day, didn’t quite feel true.
News of a “secret life” carried promise. It connoted all the scandal and intrigue we’ve been conditioned to associate with the Mueller probe. But when the afterglow of Gates’s admission wore off, we realized the point: At least for the moment, in public view, the trial is the story of a relationship between two shady men gone awry. It is the story of one man allegedly helping another evade taxes, write off the appearance of debt, disguise income as loans, and then admitting to doing much of the same for himself. It is the story of the sinking certainty that there are, and have always been, so many more men like them, in Washington and beyond.
Manafort’s lawyer teased Gates’s “secret life” throughout his cross-examination. Not because it bore any relevance to the case necessarily, but because it was intended to further destroy Gates’s credibility as a witness. Yet Downing offered no proof that it was paid for with, say, ill-gotten gains, and the court learned no details beyond the fact of its existence: not the partner’s identity, where they may have traveled, or how long the tryst lasted. But it was brilliant because, despite its irrelevance and lack of closure, it stuck, giving the media a flashy headline and suggesting to jurors that Gates was not only dishonest, but also lascivious and morally deceitful.
That much of the public seems to have projected visions of collusion onto the Manafort trial is not necessarily Mueller’s doing. In his investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion with Donald Trump’s campaign, the special counsel has the authority to prosecute unrelated crimes discovered throughout the course of the inquiry. And Manafort’s trial very well may be related: As Foer notes, the question now is “whether Gates’s testimony represents the culmination of a long and corrupt story, or the opening pages of a much more complicated tale.”
In other words, we may one day reflect on Mueller’s skill in using this trial to paint a portrait of a man—Manafort—who came onto the Trump campaign with a potent mix of nothing left to lose and foreign contacts that he used to entangle the campaign with Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. Or history could mark this trial as the downfall of a man who committed countless but unremarkable and largely unrelated crimes, whose most consequential act, perhaps, was helping Trump win the presidency.
My question, in addition to my colleague’s, is whether the American public, for all the pomp and circumstance around the Mueller probe, could accept the latter—a whimper, not a bang—as final.
Judge T. S. Ellis III adjourned his court just before 5:30 p.m. As I slid into the elevator, a blond woman noticed me holding my notebook. “What do you think the headline is? The secret affair?” she asked. Before I could answer, she said, more quietly, “I wonder if that’s the story of all this.” It seemed to be confirmation that in the end, the day’s trial, like the momentary hint of a “secret life,” had proved unsatisfying. As we descended, I began to wonder whether at the culmination of Mueller’s investigation, we would feel the same.