DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Prosecutors called their star witness to the stand yesterday in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Rick Gates is Manafort's former deputy and business partner. He is now testifying against Manafort, who faces bank and tax fraud charges. NPR's Ryan Lucas has been in court covering this trial in Alexandria, Va., and he joins us. Hey there, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So can we just remind people Manafort chaired Trump's campaign in 2016. But all of this is dating back to a much earlier time, his own business dealings. But what was he doing in that former life?
LUCAS: Well, this is when he was working as a political consultant and lobbyist in Ukraine for a pro-Russian political party there. And, this is work that he did from about 2005 to around 2015 or so.
GREENE: OK. And so Gates, his former associate, is there testifying yesterday against him. What exactly did this former associate say?
LUCAS: Well, Gates says that he began working for Manafort in around 2006, and over a decade or so he became Manafort's right hand man, essentially. They talked on the phone. They texted. They emailed all the time. Constant contact. And Gates told jurors yesterday that he conspired with Manafort and committed crimes with him. He says that he helped Manafort falsify tax returns. He did so at Manafort's direction, he said. Gates also says that they misled accountants and bookkeepers. They hid millions of dollars in secret income that Manafort had in secret foreign bank accounts. And they did this, Gates says, so that Manafort would have to pay less in taxes.
GREENE: OK. So he's saying a lot about Manafort. The fact that he came into that courtroom just reading about it, Ryan, it sounds like it was one of those movie moments, where a witness comes in, that everyone is gasping. Was it that dramatic?
LUCAS: Well, it was in a sense. You know, we were told earlier in the day yesterday that Gates would take the stand, and yet still there was this gasp in the courtroom from members of the public when the government actually called him in. You know, tax and bank fraud trials are generally pretty dry affairs. And this testimony from Gates is this trial's moment of high drama. So you have Gates and Manafort who worked closely together for years. They were actually indicted together. And then yesterday, Gates walks into the courtroom clean-shaven, wearing a blue suit, yellow tie. He raises his right hand and takes the oath to testify against his former boss. And then up on the stand, Gates did not look at Manafort at all. Manafort had a laser-like focus on Gates the whole time, however.
GREENE: Wow. Giving him, like, the evil eye as he's testifying.
LUCAS: Right. Right. And while, you know, Gates is testifying against Manafort, he did say at one point that Manafort is the most politically brilliant strategist that he's ever worked with.
GREENE: So I wonder if this came up yesterday, how Gates got here. I mean, he's testifying under a plea deal. He was indicted, as you said, with Manafort, but he made a deal with prosecutors.
LUCAS: That's right. Gates pleaded guilty in February to making false statements and conspiracy. And that plea deal with the government includes the possibility of a reduced prison sentence. He loses that possibility if he lies when he's up on the witness stand. Yesterday in court, he acknowledged crimes that he'd committed on his own behalf, as well, he says, that he'd misled a mortgage company and a credit card company. And he also said that he embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from Paul Manafort by filing false expense claims. And it's no coincidence here that Manafort's attorneys have made Rick Gates the centerpiece of their defense strategy. They want to put Rick Gates on trial here. They've placed the brunt of the blame for Manafort's troubles on Gates. They say he abused Manafort's trust. They say he stole from him and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors when he got caught, and now he's agreeing - well, he's cooperating in order to save his own skin, essentially.
GREENE: And that's going to be essentially the defense argument. I mean, this is only just begun, right? I mean, wasn't he only on the stand for something like an hour yesterday? So what happens today as this gets going again?
LUCAS: Well, he was on the stand for about 1 1/2 hours, two hours, yesterday. So, yes, he will be back in court on the stand for several more hours of testimony today. The government has said they expect to continue for about three hours with him. That will then turn to cross-examination from the defense. Now, jurors have heard testimony from Manafort's accountants and bookkeepers. They've seen bank documents, they've seen emails, other evidence to support the government's charges. Now, what the government wants from Gates is for him to corroborate that and get to the question of Manafort's intent, what Manafort was thinking. So yes, we're going to hear the end of questioning from the government. Then it will be the defense's turn. That could be a very uncomfortable experience for Gates because, as I said earlier, the defense is trying to pin all of the blame for Manafort's troubles on Gates.
GREENE: NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.