ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - In a break with convention, President Donald Trump weighed in on a criminal trial as the jury considered a verdict on Friday, calling the tax and bank fraud case against Paul Manafort “very sad” and lauding his former campaign chairman as a “very good person.”
A federal court jury in Alexandria, Virginia completed its second day of deliberations without reaching a verdict in the first trial stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 15-month-old investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis, presiding over the case, said he personally had received threats related to the trial and was being protected by U.S. marshals.
Ellis revealed the threats as he rejected a motion by a group of news organizations to make public the names of the jurors, saying he was concerned about their “peace and safety.”
“I had no idea this case would excite these emotions ... I don’t feel right if I release their names,” the judge said.
In remarks to reporters at the White House, Trump again called Mueller’s investigation, which had cast a cloud over his presidency, a “rigged witch hunt,” but sidestepped a question about whether he would issue a presidential pardon for Manafort.
“I think the whole Manafort trial is very sad, when you look at what’s going on there. I think it’s a very sad day for our country,” Trump said.
“He worked for me for a very short period of time. But you know what? He happens to be a very good person. And I think it’s very sad what they’ve done to Paul Manafort.”
Trump made his comments while the jurors, mulling 18 criminal counts against Manafort, deliberated behind closed doors on Friday morning.
As president, Trump has the power to pardon Manafort on the federal charges. He has already issued a number of pardons, including for a political ally, former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Asked by a reporter on Friday if he would pardon Manafort, Trump said, “I don’t talk about that now.”
The jurors are not sequestered but have been instructed not to watch news reports or talk to others about the case. Deliberations by the six women and six men in the jury were set to resume on Monday morning.
Prosecutors accused Manafort, 69, of hiding from U.S. tax authorities $16 million in money he earned as a political consultant for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine to fund an opulent lifestyle and then lying to banks to secure $20 million in loans after his Ukrainian income dried up and he needed cash.
Manafort faces five counts of filing false tax returns, four counts of failing to disclose his offshore bank accounts and nine counts of bank fraud. If convicted on all counts, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
The charges largely predate Manafort’s five months working on Trump’s campaign during a pivotal period in the 2016 presidential race, including three months as campaign chairman.
It is unusual for a U.S. president to comment about the character of a defendant in an ongoing trial and criticize the legal proceedings. It was not the first time Trump has weighed in since Manafort’s trial began on July 31. On the first day of testimony, Trump said Manafort had been treated worse than 1920s gangster Al Capone.
Trump has made previous comments criticizing various federal judges and courts and has been harshly critical of Mueller, a former FBI director who is investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia, an allegation the president and Moscow deny.
On Friday, he accused Mueller of having “a lot of conflicts,” but said the special counsel should be allowed to finish a report on his investigation.
Prohibitions on jurors reading about a case they are deciding are difficult to enforce in the smartphone era, Cornell University criminal law professor Jens David Ohlin said.
“We trust jurors to be on their best behavior and wall themselves off but that kind of goes against human nature,” Ohlin said.
“I think it was very ill-advised for the president to do this. He should have kept his mouth shut,” Ohlin added.
The prosecution could request a mistrial, but such a maneuver was very unlikely, Ohlin said.
The jury sent a note on Thursday afternoon asking Ellis four questions including one about defining “reasonable doubt.” In a criminal case, a jury must find a defendant guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Reporting by Nathan Layne and Karen Freifeld; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe and Ginger Gibson; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Alistair Bell and Toni Reinhold