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Trial Starts Tuesday For Ex-Trump Campaign Chairman Manafort

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Paul Manafort goes on trial tomorrow. Manafort ran President Trump's campaign in the summer of 2016. He is facing several charges, including financial fraud. Manafort is accused of hiding money that he received from the Ukrainian government to promote a pro-Russian leader. Special counsel Robert Mueller has secured several guilty pleas from people caught up in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but Paul Manafort will be the first to go on trial.

We're going to examine what is at stake with Seth B. Waxman. He is a federal prosecutor. He served under Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and President Obama. Mr. Waxman, thanks for being with us.

SETH B. WAXMAN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So for the sake of trying to understand this, let's say these charges against Manafort are true, that he took shady money from the Ukrainian government, hid that money so he could evade taxes. All of that may indeed be illegal. But explain what it has to do with Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

WAXMAN: Yeah. I mean, it's a great question. And, on the one hand, this case has nothing to do with that, but on the other hand, it has everything to do with Bob Mueller's investigation. You know, the prosecutors are going to put this case together through documents showing that he took in tens of millions of dollars in revenue, didn't claim it on his taxes, and then lied to banks about it to get more business loans and more money. And they can do all of that without mentioning Russia, without getting into any kind of collusion. So the trial itself is really not going to be much of a window into Bob Mueller's investigation.

So on the one hand, again, it doesn't have anything to do with it. But, on the other hand, the entire reason, in my opinion, that Mr. Manafort's really on trial here is to get him to flip, to get him to cooperate with Bob Mueller in the wider investigation to keep the pressure on him in Virginia then to keep the pressure on him in D.C. in the fall on other charges and to try to get him - you know, inside information into to how the president and his inner circle worked through those months leading up to the election.

MARTIN: If Paul Manafort was going to flip, wouldn't he have done it by now? I mean, he's been through an awful lot.

WAXMAN: No. I agree with that. But, you know, in my mind, he's kind of playing with House money in a little way. I mean, he can take this case to trial. If he wins then he goes to D.C. in the fall and tries to beat that case. On the other hand, if he loses, he can still cooperate. It's my opinion - having been through these kinds of cases, conspiracy cases, over and over again when I was a prosecutor - that even after conviction, those prosecutors will take him in as a cooperator and still work with him and cut him a deal. They need him that much. So, you know, he's taking a shot at beating this case. It looks like an incredibly strong case, in my opinion. But at the end of the day if he loses, I think he can still walk into Mueller's office and say, look, now I want a deal.

MARTIN: Let me ask you about the broader Mueller investigation. It came out last week, it was reported that Mueller and his team are going to examine President Trump's tweets to look for evidence of possible obstruction of justice in this whole investigation. Rudy Giuliani, one of President Trump's lawyers, was on CBS's "Face The Nation." This is what he had to say about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

RUDY GIULIANI: I've looked at all those tweets, and they don't amount to anything. But the man complaining about an unfair investigation - which, even if he wasn't the president, he has a First Amendment right to do that - I don't think there's anything there that gets him beyond the First Amendment.

MARTIN: We should say the president unleashed on the Mueller investigation again over the weekend. But, is Rudy Giuliani right? Are these tweets protected from Mueller under the First Amendment?

WAXMAN: No. No, absolutely not. I mean, Mr. Giuliani is doing his job. He's advocating for his client so I don't fault him there. But any words that come out of a target or subject's mouth, whether in writing, whether it orally, through tweets, through emails or otherwise, is evidence. It's all admissible evidence. So if you're going to tweet out that you're going to kill someone and then you go kill them, that comes in. That is a statement, an admission by a defendant, if in fact they're charged. So Mr. Giuliani's analysis that somehow tweets can't be obstruction or can't lend evidence to a substantive crime is just flatly wrong.

MARTIN: Seth B. Waxman. He is a partner at Dickinson Wright law firm here in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

WAXMAN: No. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.