|BILL HENNESSY / REUTERS|
One shocking sentencing down and one sentencing to go in Paul Manafort's journey toward possibly spending the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary. Unless Donald Trump pardons his former campaign chairman, in which case it may be a state prison.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis sentenced Manafort to a disgracefully light 47 months in prison after reminding the Alexandria, Virginia courtroom that he was not being sentenced "for having anything to do with colluding with the Russian government" and otherwise "has led an otherwise blameless life."
I will have plenty of company in arguing that the sentence was outrageously lenient since federal sentencing guidelines call for 19½ to 24 years for the five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failing to disclose a foreign bank account for which a jury returned guilty verdicts against Manafort following a trial in August.
But the reliably outspoken Ellis, whom The New York Times has described as "A Caesar in his own Rome," called those guidelines "excessive" during the Thursday afternoon sentencing and said the sentence he imposed of just shy of four years was more in line with those of others who had been convicted on similar crimes.
Manafort also will receive credit for time served -- the nine months since his bail was revoked in June because of witness tampering charges.
The jury had been unable to reach a verdict on 10 other counts because one juror, who identified herself as a strong Trump supporter, refused to join the other 11 jurors to convict Manafort on 10 additional foreign banking and bank fraud charges. Prosecutors later dropped those charges.
That and Ellis's leniency have to be considered a reprieve of a sort for Manafort and a victory for Trump in the nightmarish and deeply distorted world in which he presumes to be president and we struggle. As well as a timely if deeply discomfiting reminder that the very justice system that he has repeatedly tried to subvert has blatant inequities.
Manafort's second sentencing is scheduled for March 13.
His by-now famous $15,000 silk-lined ostrich leather bomber jacket long gone, a wheelchair-bound Manafort was dressed in a green prison jumpsuit with "ALEXANDRIA INMATE" in white block letters on the back as he addressed the court prior to being sentenced.
The inscrutable Manafort did not apologize for his crimes, but asked Ellis "for compassion," adding that "I know it was my conduct that brought me here."
"The last two years have been the most difficult years for my family and I," he said from his wheelchair. "To say that I feel humiliated and ashamed would be a gross understatement."
Evidence presented at Manafort's trial showed that he hid $55 million in income from his work for pro-Vladimir Putin political parties in Ukraine in more than 30 overseas bank accounts and lied to U.S. banks to obtain millions more in loans to finance his profligate spending on multiple homes and a lavish jet set lifestyle.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller had charged Manafort and and his longtime deputy Rick Gates in October 2017. They were the first indictments in what has become a 22-month investigation into what is now widely acknowledged to be the greatest political scandal in U.S. history.
After securing Gates' cooperation as a witness against Manafort, Mueller's prosecutors split his case in two, putting the more clear-cut financial crimes indictment in Northern Virginia federal court.
In September, on the eve of Manafort's other trial in District of Columbia federal court, he agreed to cooperate. This seemed to be a huge score for Mueller because the longtime lobbyist and political operative gone bad was considered the key to unlocking the collusion puzzle as Trump's primary conduit to Russia.
In a plea deal approved by District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, Manafort pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice and forfeited $26 million in personal assets in return for a prison sentence of no more than 10 years, but he welshed on the deal.
Manafort continued to lie to prosecutors, possibly because he was angling for a presidential pardon, while one of his lawyers provided backchannel reports to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani about the scope of the questions prosecutors were asking him to aid in the president's defense against what, despite 37 indictments and 199 criminal charges involving a rogues gallery of perps, Trump still ridiculously calls a "witch hunt."
Jackson will be required to follow the plea-agreed 10-year maximum in her March 13 sentencing. Prosecutors did not recommend a specific punishment, but urged her to make sure Manafort never walks free again.
She has indicated that she may impose the second sentence to run consecutively after the first sentence, which effectively means that Manafort -- who turns 70 on April 1 -- still is looking at the possibility of over 13 years in prison even with Ellis's considerably lighter than expected sentence.
And just to stir in the inevitable element of irony that seems to shadow Russia scandal developments (the mother of them all being Trump ending up with Mueller because he fired James Comey), Manafort could be looking at even less prison time if he hadn't kept lying and royally pissed off Jackson.
While Manafort's value as a cooperating witness who could provide prosecutors with an insider's account of links between Trump Tower and the Kremlin was not realized, there are contemporaneous accounts of his activities as an intermediary from Gates and likely others. This includes Manafort's many interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik, a suspected GRU-trained spy and longtime associate.
In one of the instances in which prosecutors said Manafort broke his plea agreement, he lied about a meeting with Kilimnik and Gates at an upscale Manhattan cigar bar on August 2, 2016 where he is believed to have shared with Kilimnik detailed campaign polling data to be used by Russian trolls in targeting voters through social media in the ongoing cyberesabotage of Hillary Clinton's campaign. The men also discussed a so-called Ukrainian "peace plan," which was code for relief of crippling Obama administration-imposed Russia sanctions should Trump be elected.
Meanwhile, I have believed that Trump, as unpredictably foolish as he can be, realizes that a pardon of Manafort would not be worth the heat he would take.
Mueller and newly empowered House Democrats are bearing down on him through multiple investigations, his domestic and foreign agendas are tanking, and there are signs of panic among the Republican faithful as an increasing number of commentators wake up to the reality that Trump sold out America's interests to her greatest enemy.
No matter. The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance is preparing state criminal charges against Manafort in an effort to ensure he still will face prison time even if he is pardoned for his federal crimes.
The New York state charges would be based on millions of dollars of loans Manafort fraudulently received from two banks. Those loans were also the subject of some of the counts in the federal indictment that led to his conviction after his August 2018 trial, but state prosecutors deferred their inquiry in order not to interfere with Mueller’s investigation.
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