Jury deliberations to begin in Manafort trial, as defense team suggests prosecution is improper, 'desperate'

Attorneys for ex-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort suggested during closing arguments Wednesday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team had improperly ensnared their client in the ongoing Russia probe, prompting a last-minute recess in the case after prosecutors cried foul.

The drama unfolded as closing arguments wrapped up after nearly four hours. Jury deliberations are now set to begin at 9:30 a.m. EST on Thursday. A unanimous verdict from the 12 jurors is required to convict Manafort on each of the 18 counts against him.

Manafort attorney Richard Westling on Wednesday told jurors that banks had not reported any problems with Manafort to regulators "until the special counsel came and asked questions," and accused prosecutors of "stacking" charges against Manafort. And another defense attorney, Kevin Downing, said several times the prosecution should have been handled by an IRS audit, rather than a high-profile federal prosecution by the special counsel's office.

Prosecutors said both arguments violated a pretrial agreement not to discuss the larger political context of the case. Later in the day, during jury instructions that lasted well over an hour, Judge T.S. Ellis told jurors to ignore the defense team's suggestion that the Mueller prosecution was politically motivated.

He also emphasized that prosecutors bear the burden of proof, beyond any reasonable doubt, in the case.

"It's not my function to deliberate facts, it’s yours," Ellis told jurors on the eve of their deliberations.

Leaving the courtoom on Wednesday, Downing told reporters that Manafort was optimistic ahead of the deliberations.

"Mr. Manafort was very happy with how things went today," Downing said. "His defense team got to address the jury, point out the shortcomings in the government's case and explain the government has not met their burden of proof."

Throughout their closing arguments during the day, defense attorneys claimed prosecutors not only failed to meet their burden of proof that Manafort committed bank and tax fraud, but that "not a single bit" of evidence supported their allegations.

Manafort's defense team also tore into Rick Gates, the prosecution's star witness who pleaded guilty earlier this year in hopes of receiving a lighter sentence.

JUDGE ELLIS TAUNTS AND TORMENTS MUELLER TEAM, CLAIMS PROSECUTOR IS CRYING

Last week, Gates testified that he and Manafort committed bank and tax fraud together, but the defense team repeatedly called his credibility into question, establishing that Gates had been skimming money from Manafort, defrauding banks, lying to federal investigators, and engaging in extramarital affairs -- all by his own admission.

“The government was so desperate to convict Mr. Manafort, they made a deal with Rick Gates,” Downing told jurors, adding that Gates “showed himself to be the liar he is" and that "to the very end, he lied to you.”

"The government was so desperate to convict Mr. Manafort, they made a deal with Rick Gates."

- Manafort attorney Kevin Downing

Downing added: “How he was able to get the deal he did I have no idea ... on cross examination, he fell apart."

And Westling reminded jurors that the government – and not the defendant – must “meet that burden" of proof.

“It’s not even enough that they are highly likely guilty,” Westling said. “It has to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Hold the government to its burden, ladies and gentlemen.”

Westling also downplayed prosecutors' email evidence, which appeared to show Manafort acknowledging his ownership of overseas accounts that he had failed to report on his taxes. Other emails showed Manafort requesting that his accountant's profit-and-loss statements, which were later submitted to banks to obtain loans, be converted into Word format so that he could easily edit them.

The standard for criminal tax liability is high, and requires that prosecutors show not only that Manafort had failed to report accounts he owned, but that he knew he was breaking the law when he made the omissions.

Westling asked jurors to consider their own past emails, and whether all the information in them would stand up to scrutiny years later.

“We all send email, except Judge Ellis,” he said, referring to the 78-year-old presiding judge in the case.

Westling also emphasized that several financial documents in the case had Manafort's signature, but appeared to have been signed by someone else. That's a critical argument for the defense, which has tried to argue Gates bore responsibility for Manafort's alleged crimes.

During their rebuttal to the defense team's closing, prosecutors accused the defense team of trying to "distract" jurors by criticizing Gates.

"The defense wants you to believe this is all about Rick Gates," prosecutor Greg Andres said. "They want to distract you from the evidence. ... It’s the evidence and witnesses in this case that the defense is afraid of."

He then pointed to an email in which Manafort told Gates, “You are the quarterback on this.”

Andres told the jury: “Guess who the coach of that team was? Paul Manafort.” He added, "The defense is asking you to ignore your own common sense." 

Earlier in the day, prosecutors used their closing arguments to paint the former Trump campaign chairman as a chronic liar, telling jurors Manafort is “not above the law.”

Manafort, 69, is facing tax evasion and bank fraud charges after being accused of hiding income earned from his Ukrainian political work from the IRS. He’s also accused of fraudulently obtaining millions in bank loans.

PROSECUTORS BLAST ‘MANFORT’S LIES’ IN CLOSING ARGUMENTS

Andres said the testimony over the last two weeks shows Manafort hid money in foreign bank accounts to spend on luxury items and real estate. He also told the jury Manafort “filed false tax returns” for five years, from 2010 to 2014.

During the prosecution’s closing arguments, Manafort sat stone-faced, glaring at a TV on his table showing the exhibits.

A day earlier, the defense rested its case without calling Manafort or any other witnesses to the stand. 

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team rested their case Monday afternoon after about two weeks of testimony from prosecution witnesses. Before closing arguments, Ellis ruled against the defense’s motion to acquit. Such motions are only granted by a judge where the prosecution has presented such a weak case that no reasonable juror could vote to convict.

Ellis, who has not shied from making colorful comments during the trial, signaled that he will tell the jury to disregard any comments he made during witness testimony that might have shown his opinion.

“Do you think I made any comments?” Ellis asked both sides on Tuesday.

After a short silence, prosecutor Andres stood and said, “Yes.”

There was audible laughter in the courtroom. At various points in the trial, Ellis has openly voiced his skepticism about the prosecutors' case, repeatedly reminding jurors that being wealthy in itself is not a crime. He has previously directly accused prosecutors of pursuing their case against Manafort to get at President Trump.

Manafort’s legal troubles won’t end with this trial. He is also facing charges in a separate federal court case in Washington, including conspiring against the United States, conspiring to launder money, failing to register as an agent of a foreign principal and providing false statements.

Fox News’ Alex Pappas and Jake Gibson contributed to this report.

Gregg Re is an editor for Fox News. Follow him on Twitter @gregg_re.