NOEL KING, HOST:
What exactly was the nature of a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian operative at Trump Tower in 2016? The White House first said that meeting was about adoption policy, but the president has described it in other ways. And then yesterday he tweeted, quote, "this was a meeting to get information on an opponent." He said in that same tweet that it was legal, but he also said that he knew nothing about it. The president's also been tweeting about his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort is back in federal court this week. He's on trial for bank and tax fraud. His trial comes out of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference.
Chuck Rosenberg is on the line with me now. He's a former federal prosecutor. He worked in the Eastern District of Virginia, where Manafort's trial is taking place. Mr. Rosenberg, good morning.
CHUCK ROSENBERG: Good morning, Noel.
KING: All right, so this isn't the first time that the president has acknowledged that this meeting was effectively an attempt to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. President Trump of course was not at that meeting. Why do you think that President Trump is bringing this back up now?
ROSENBERG: He seems mightily concerned about it and perhaps with good reason. If you look at the indictment that the Mueller team lodged against the Russian military officials from the GRU, we know that in March and April of 2016 - so prior to the meeting in Trump Tower - the GRU already started to hack into the emails of the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Fast-forward to that meeting. I think the operative question, Noel, is, what did the U.S. persons - Trump Jr., Manafort and others attending that meeting - know about what the Russians had already done? And did they join that conspiracy even after it began?
KING: Well, the president has said on Twitter that this meeting was quote, "totally legal," also, though, made an attempt or made an effort to say, I didn't know anything about it. I mean, could this particular meeting cause legal trouble for President Trump?
ROSENBERG: Quite possibly. It certainly seems like it could cause legal trouble for the Americans who attended the meeting. At the very least, meeting with a hostile foreign power, with the Russians, should trigger counterintelligence concerns among any sort of savvy political person. First thing you do is pick up the phone and call the FBI. They don't seem to have done that.
ROSENBERG: Could it cause legal trouble for the president? Quite possibly as well, particularly if, having heard about the meeting, getting the readout from his son about what happened at the meeting, he tries to cover up the intent of the meeting. He tells false stories about what the meeting was for and, as we know, dictates a statement on Air Force One concealing the purpose of the meeting. That's an obstruction of justice, quite possibly, and it could land the president and others around him in quite a bit of trouble.
KING: Let's talk about one person who formerly was around the president who is potentially in quite a bit of trouble - Paul Manafort. So since we last talked to you, the trial started. The government has laid out some pretty powerful evidence for the jury. Do you think prosecutors are in a strong position heading into Week 2, or how would you characterize their position?
ROSENBERG: No, I think that's exactly right. I think it's a strong position, and here's why. These cases - paper-intensive document cases, tax fraud and bank fraud - tend to run according to script. They're somewhat formulaic. The government introduces income. They introduce expenditures. They put on accountants to show that the accountants didn't know that Mr. Manafort, for instance, had foreign bank accounts or that he was concealing income. And then, unwittingly, these accountants help him prepare tax returns that he files with the IRS which understate income and omit the fact that he has control over these foreign bank accounts. All of that is formulaic, and all of that is precisely what's happening in a courtroom in the Eastern District of Virginia.
KING: Manafort's accountants...
ROSENBERG: These cases...
KING: ...Are testifying to these things. Yeah.
ROSENBERG: That's exactly right. And so what I expect you'll see in the coming week is a little bit more of the same. There'll be some summary witnesses from the FBI, who will total up the amount of money in the bank accounts and ultimately will tie those accounts to Mr. Manafort directly, will show that he omitted income from his income tax returns. Then I expect we'll hear from Mr. Gates.
KING: Well, yeah, that is the big question this week, right? Manafort's - Paul Manafort's longtime deputy Rick Gates expected to take the stand. How does he fit into the prosecution's strategy here?
ROSENBERG: Well, criminals tend to run with criminals. So Mr. Gates is an admitted criminal. Mr. Manafort is an accused criminal. It shouldn't surprise the jury very much that these two guys plotted together, conspired, did much of the same thing - tax fraud and bank fraud to, you know, fatten their own wallets. I think the government will put Mr. Gates on the stand. They'll - they will have him admit to all of his wrongdoing. That's fairly typical, too. And then they'll take him step by step through the indictment, having him explain each of the things that he and Mr. Manafort did together to cheat the IRS and to defraud banks.
KING: And just briefly, how do you see Mr. Manafort's defense lawyers countering the government's case? What's their strategy here?
ROSENBERG: Well, they're going to try and do two things. One, they'll try and say that Mr. Manafort lacked the intent to defraud the IRS or the banks. Perhaps if his income tax returns understated income, they'll say it was an accident because he was a very busy man. And secondly, I think they'll try to pin as much of this on Mr. Gates as they possibly can. Both of these...
KING: Call him the real - sort of the real one at fault. Chuck Rosenberg was a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia. Thanks so much.
ROSENBERG: Thank you so much for having me this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.