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.
Paul Manafort’s pursuit of foreign cash and shady deals laid the groundwork for the corruption of Washington.
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.