ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) – Prosecutors and defense attorneys selected a 12-member jury on Tuesday to weigh the fate of Paul Manafort, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former 2016 campaign chairman, in the first trial to arise out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
The jury of six men and six women will hear testimony in federal court in Virginia in the trial of Manafort, who faces charges that he hid tens of millions of dollars earned in Ukraine in offshore accounts and defrauded banks for loans. Four alternate jurors, three women and one man, also were chosen.
Opening statements in the closely watched case were set to begin later on Tuesday.
Manafort, 69, was seated in the courtroom wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis made several jokes during the jury selection process, including about the quality of the lunches jurors will be provided. While many in the courtroom laughed, including Manafort’s lawyers, the defendant himself did not.
The tax and bank fraud trial represents the first test of Mueller’s ability to win a conviction of a former Trump aide. Three other aides, including Manafort’s longtime business partner Rick Gates, have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with Mueller’s probe.
Prosecutors are seeking to provide details of Manafort’s work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, raising the possibility that new information about his Russian connections could emerge. Manafort has filed a motion to have details of that work excluded from trial.
Manafort faces 18 criminal counts, which center on allegations that he hid much of the $60 million he earned in Ukraine in undisclosed overseas bank accounts and failed to pay taxes on it. [L4N1UP0F7]
Prosecutors also accuse him of lying to U.S. banks to obtain real estate loans in a bid to maintain a lavish lifestyle after his client, former pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, fell from power in 2014 and the money stopped.
Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Manafort actively conferred with his lawyers during the jury selection process, writing and passing notes. Manafort’s wife, Kathleen, was sitting behind him in the courtroom.
Outside the courthouse, a handful of protesters displayed a life-sized puppet of Trump and held signs saying “Trump won’t do time for you,” “It’s Mueller time,” and “I like your new suit” alongside a photo of Manafort’s mug shot.
Ellis said he planned to rule on whether that Ukraine-related evidence can be included after the jury selection process in the Washington suburb of Alexandria.
“Those documents are relevant,” Ellis said earlier in the day, referring to prosecution exhibits showing the nature of Manafort’s funds, but added that it was not the end of the issue.
Mueller was appointed by the U.S. Justice Department’s No. 2 official last year to take over an FBI investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election and whether there was unlawful coordination between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
Trump has vacillated between showing sympathy for Manafort and trying to distance himself. Manafort worked on Trump’s presidential campaign for five months and attended a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians that is a focal point of Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between the campaign and the Kremlin.
A Manafort conviction would give momentum to Mueller, who has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three companies since the probe started 14 months ago. An acquittal would support efforts by Trump and his allies to portray the probe as a “witch hunt.” Trump denies any collusion with Russia, and on Tuesday tried to make the case publicly that collusion would not be a crime anyway.
Prosecutors have said they will not present evidence of collusion at this trial. The Virginia trial will be followed by a second one in Washington in September in which Manafort is charged with money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent and witness tampering. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to those charges, as well.
In the Washington case, a federal judge last month ordered Manafort jailed after Mueller charged him with witness-tampering, charges to which he pleaded not guilty.
A U.S. appeals court in Washington on Tuesday rejected Manafort’s request to be released. A three-judge panel said there was no clear error in the lower court’s decision, noting that Manafort “went right past the line with the alleged witness tampering.”
Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by John Walcott, Peter Cooney and Will Dunham