ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The prosecution's star witness in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort took the stand today. Rick Gates was once Manafort's right-hand man. Now he's testifying against his longtime business partner. Gates is cooperating with prosecutors against Manafort, who's facing bank and tax fraud charges. NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has spent the day in that courtroom in Alexandria, Va., and joins us now. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So Gates is perhaps the key witness against Manafort. What have you heard from him today?
JOHNSON: Rick Gates says he worked for Paul Manafort for 10 years. He communicated with him via email, text, phone and in person, sometimes several times a week or even multiple times a day. Rick Gates says he committed crimes with Paul Manafort and that he misled accountants and banks at Manafort's request and Manafort's direction. The goal was to help reduce Paul Manafort's tax bill or solve other financial problems.
Now, Ari, we have not seen much of Rick Gates since he pleaded guilty in February. He's shaved off that man-in-the-wilderness beard. He's looking much younger and more clean-cut now in front of this jury.
SHAPIRO: Well, those sound like pretty stark statements from him. Why does this play a big role in the government's case against Manafort?
JOHNSON: Well, of course the jury's already heard from Manafort's longtime bookkeeper and two accountants who did tax work for him. But Rick Gates was Paul Manafort's right-hand man and his deputy in dealing with those people and many others. Rick Gates is basically the guy to walk this jury through some of these complicated transactions and offshore accounts and to tell the jury what Paul Manafort did and what he was thinking. That intent is important for the government to prove since Manafort's defense is that he may have made some mistakes in tax filings but that the system was complex and he didn't mean to do it.
SHAPIRO: So how do you expect Manafort's lawyers to respond to this testimony from Rick Gates who says he talked to Manafort, like, 10 times a day?
JOHNSON: This has every potential to get quite ugly. In their opening statement, Manafort's lawyers intended - announced an intent to prosecute Rick Gates. And there is some basis for that. Gates of course committed his own crimes. He's admitted on the stand today to embezzling several hundred thousand dollars using phony expense accounts from Manafort and told the jury that Manafort didn't even notice.
Gates also acknowledged some other crimes. He misled a mortgage company, a credit card company. And while he was out on release, he broke curfew by 15 minutes (laughter). Of course Rick Gates is testifying under a plea deal for the possible promise of a reduced prison sentence. But that deal will get blown up if Gates lies on the witness stand.
SHAPIRO: So you're in this courtroom as this is all unfolding. What's the expression on Manafort's face? What was his reaction today?
JOHNSON: This is an incredible scene because Paul Manafort is sitting not far away from Rick Gates on the witness stand. Manafort's looking straight at him. Gates testified today that Manafort is probably one of the most politically brilliant strategists he's ever worked with. Manafort sat up extra, extra tall in his seat - quite a moment. But I expect some brutal cross-examination. Prosecutors outside the precedence of the jury have already made an argument to the judge that any marital infidelity by any witness should not necessarily be drawn out in cross-examination.
SHAPIRO: It seems like this trial is moving so quickly. Where does it go from here?
JOHNSON: Moving very quickly. In fact, during the government's first 45 minutes of questioning this star witness, Rick Gates, Judge T.S. Ellis III was already rushing along the prosecutor. And the government lawyer Greg Andres seemed to bridle at that a little bit. We do expect Rick Gates to be on the stand in direct and then to endure a very lengthy period of cross-examination. But it's possible this case could be over or mostly over by the end of the week, which is well ahead of schedule.
SHAPIRO: Wow. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.