Paul Manafort’s criminal trial on bank- and tax-fraud charges, speeding along for nearly two weeks, came to a mysterious halt Friday morning as the federal judge and lawyers for both sides huddled out of earshot of the public.
Rumors swirled through the ninth-floor courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, about what the delay could mean — from a looming guilty plea from Manafort to Judge T.S. Ellis III conceding his second mistake in two days — but there were no clear answers.
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Instead, Ellis, a 78-year-old Ronald Reagan appointee explained briefly to the court that he had a busy docket of more than 200 to 300 cases that he also to has to “keep moving” and sent the overflow crowd off for an early lunch.
“I assure you this was all necessary,” Ellis said.
The trial is set to resume at 1:45 p.m. with special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors questioning their final cluster of witnesses before resting their case and turning things over to Manafort’s defense.
The trial is expected to end next week with jurors then shifting into deliberations on a verdict.
The scene inside Ellis’s courtroom Friday morning was unusual in comparison to any other morning in the Manafort trial, now into its ninth day. Before the jury was summoned into the room, Ellis immediately called a bench conference with prosecutors and Manafort’s attorneys.
After that brief meeting with the judge broke up, Manafort got up from his seat and huddled with his entire team of lawyers as the entire courtroom quieted down. From the front row, a friend of Manafort’s wife, Kathleen Manafort, remarked aloud that she thought everyone was trying to listen in to the conversation. She also asked the reporters sitting in the row behind them what they thought was happening.
Paul Manafort, dressed in a blue suit, smiled and had an animated look on his face as his conference with his lawyers transitioned to individual conversations.
Ellis then called lawyers back for a second conference. This time, everyone from Manafort’s team joined the huddle, leaving the defendant by himself at his table to scribble notes as a deputy U.S. marshal sitting behind him kept watch. The judge then took the unusual step of calling the courtroom security officer over to participate.
That conference broke after a short discussion and Ellis announced he needed to recess for about 15 minutes “to consider an issue.” Oddly, he exited the courtroom through a door opposite his own chambers and in the direction of the jury room. The court’s stenographer followed.
This wait lasted longer than Ellis predicted — about 45 minutes — and when the judge returned, he summoned in the jury, took attendance and told them the court would be going back out for the early lunch break. As he has repeatedly throughout the trial, Ellis then delivered multiple warnings about not discussing the case with anyone, even among themselves and added: “Keep an open mind until all the evidence is in.”
As the courtroom emptied and prosecutors carrying all of their materials waited for the elevators, reporters asked Mueller lawyer Uzo Asonye for an update and also whether he could say what was in his cardboard box.
“I could,” Asonye said as an FBI agent loomed to his side, “but I’d have to kill you.”