“I do think we’re going to have to question the jurors individually,” said Joseph Bondy, Parnas’ lawyer.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hagan Scotten said jurors’ political views were largely irrelevant, as long as those selected say they could decide the case based on the evidence and not the roles of people like Trump and his lawyer Giuliani, who are not charged in the case.
“I don’t think the question should be: Do you have strong feelings about former President Donald Trump? Who doesn’t, in a way?” Scotten said.
The prosecution and the defendants also disagreed over how prominent Trump and Giuliani are likely to be at the trial.
“They will come up really only peripherally,” Scotten insisted, saying the men would be mentioned mostly in the context of grip-and-grin photos taken during fundraisers. “We have a lot of pictures going that way, which are part of the story. … I don’t think they are central to the case.”
However, Bondy predicted mention of Trump and Giuliani would be a more regular occurrence at the trial, which is expected to last at least a couple of weeks.
“Mr. Giuliani will come up because, at a certain point in time, Mr. Parnas began to travel with Mr. Giuliani,” the defense lawyer said. “I think it will come up relatively frequently.”
Parnas and another Giuliani associate, Igor Fruman, were arrested in 2019 on campaign finance and fraud charges. The men worked with Giuliani on a business venture known as “Fraud Guarantee” and also played roles in a project that led to Trump’s first impeachment: the effort to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Giuliani has not been charged in the case, but in April the FBI carried out raids at his office and home as part of a related investigation into potential violations of foreign-agent registration laws.
Last month, Fruman pleaded guilty to one count of soliciting a foreign national for donations to U.S. political campaigns.
Prosecutors allege that Parnas, Fruman and Kukushkin were involved in a scheme to use money from a Russian investor, Andrey Muraviev, to clear away hurdles to a new, legal marijuana business by making hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations to political causes.
During the hearing, which stretched to more than two hours Tuesday, the outlines became clearer of the defenses Parnas and Kukushkin are likely to employ.
Parnas appears set to argue that he did not know the ins and outs of federal campaign laws and, therefore, can’t be found to have willfully violated laws against foreign contributions and concealing the name of the true source of funds for a donation.
Kukushkin’s lawyer, Lefcourt, said he wants to argue that Parnas and Fruman were serial fraudsters and that the true aim of their effort was not to make political donations but to swindle Kukushkin and Muraviev out of as much money as possible.
“There wasn’t a meeting of the minds. It was one group trying to take advantage of another group,” the defense lawyer said. “They stole the money. They always intended to steal the money.”
Oetken signaled that he would allow that line of argument but said he wasn’t clear if it was really a defense for Kukushkin. It remains unclear whether there will be any mention of the “Fraud Guarantee” venture that the judge previously ruled should be addressed in a separate trial. Giuliani received $500,000 for his work on that project.
The trial is expected to feature testimony from individuals involved with political groups and campaigns who received money from Fruman and Parnas. One expected witness is former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the frontrunner for the GOP Senate nomination in that state next year.
Laxalt’s unsuccessful 2018 campaign for governor was among the recipients of two $5,000 donations from Fruman that the Justice Department alleges were straw contributions from a Russian businessman not permitted to fund U.S. campaigns. And prosecutors say Laxalt’s testimony will show he was deceived into believing the donation was legitimate.
Parnas’ lawyer, Bondy, said he wanted to question Laxalt in front of the jury about his support for Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread fraud. Bondy said Laxalt’s views are so bizarre that they undercut his credibility.
“He spearheaded former President Donald Trump’s effort to stop the steal and overturn the election in Nevada. … It is relatively far out and, frankly, untethered from reality. I would say that it impacts on his, almost, competency,” the defense lawyer said.
However, the prosecution said allowing the defense to question Laxalt about that threatened to create a sideshow over Trump’s claims. “It’s something people feel so strongly about and can’t help arguing about when it comes up,” Scotten said.
But Bondy insisted that Laxalt’s views are well outside the mainstream. “‘I think most of Mr. Laxalt’s own party think these views are extreme, not just half the country or Democrats,” the defense attorney said.
Oetken sided with prosecutors. “I think it’s a real distraction to get into this stuff,” said the judge, who is an appointee of former President Barack Obama. The judge also barred defense lawyers from asking Laxalt about his controversial intervention on behalf of the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and about what the lawyers called “rumors” that Laxalt had diverted campaign funds for personal use.
Oetken suggested Tuesday that media interest in the case has diminished. He said he didn’t see many reporters in the courtroom, although a number were listening to the session on a phone line. The back-and-forth at the pretrial hearing left open the question of whether jurors will be questioned about their views on Trump, Giuliani and other prominent figures in public or in private, as defense attorneys asked.
The Supreme Court has ruled that jury selection must take place in public, but exceptions are allowed when jurors want to discuss particularly private or sensitive matters. Attending to those issues while managing coronavirus protocols and social distancing put in place to protect courtroom participants seems certain to add complexity to the undertaking.
“I’ve never had a trial quite like this,” Oetken said.