Today was supposed to be the big, final day in court for Paul John Manafort Jr., the once-flamboyant political maven and ostrich jacket-wearer turned convicted felon. For decades a controversial character in our nation’s capital, Manafort capped his career in politics as campaign manager for Donald J. Trump from March to August of 2016, the pivotal period when MAGA exploded and Trump seized the GOP’s nomination against the hopes and expectations of Republican elites. The rest, we know.
That capstone would prove to be Manafort’s downfall. It’s not like there weren’t portents of a grim ending ahead. Nobody had recently considered Manafort to be any sort of Republican A-lister. His last major campaign before Trump’s was Sen. Bob Dole’s doomed 1996 effort against President Bill Clinton. In Washington, DC, Manafort the lobbyist was known for his unsavory client list, which included various Third World strongmen, Pakistan’s sinister Inter-Service Intelligence, and several Eastern oligarchs. You went to Manafort not because you needed a lobbyist, but because nobody else in DC would take your call.
It all came crashing down in mid-August 2016, when the media noticed that Manafort’s Eastern factotum, Konstantin Kilimnik, who played a multipurpose role as translator, buddy, and all-around fixer, was formerly an officer of Russian military intelligence – that is, GRU. Robert S. Mueller, III, and his investigation of the Trump campaign later indicated that there was nothing ‘former’ about Kilimnik’s GRU affiliation.
For Manafort, it’s all been a slow ride downhill from there. The August 2016 embarrassment surrounding his Kremlin-flavored eviction from the Trump Train might have faded, except Trump won the election in November – an outcome which nobody in the campaign, the candidate included, seems to have pondered. That surprise ensured serious FBI scrutiny on Manafort and others who had avoided such Federal scrutiny for decades.
Myriad misfortunes followed Manafort thereafter. He was arrested at the end of October 2017 on a raft of charges stemming from the Mueller inquiry, resulting in two separate Federal trials in Washington, DC, and the Eastern District of Virginia. The latter trial came first, and in August 2018, an EDVA jury found Manafort guilty on eight charges: five on tax evasion and three relating to bank fraud.
Worse still was Manafort’s DC legal debacle. In September 2018, the defendant pleaded guilty to charges of witness tampering and conspiracy to defraud the United States. However, in February of this year, Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that Manafort had violated his plea agreement by lying repeatedly to Mueller’s prosecutors. At that point, Manafort’s future appeared grim.
However, his sentence for the EDVA crimes offered a glimmer of hope for Team Trump, many of whom must be wondering how long it is before they, too, are in Federal courts as defendants. Last week, EDVA Judge T.S. Ellis sentenced Manafort to just 47 months in prison (minus nine months for time served), a fraction of the two decades-plus behind bars which Mueller’s staff recommended. To the consternation and confusion of Trump’s critics, the judge critiqued Mueller recommendation as ‘excessive’ and praised Manafort’s ‘otherwise blameless life.’
Manafort’s lucky streak turned out to be short-lived and it decisively ended today in a Washington, DC courtroom with a second sentencing round. There, Judge Jackson lambasted the convicted felon, denouncing his 11th-hour show of contrition as fakery, including the memorable line, ‘Saying I’m sorry I got caught is not an inspiring plea for leniency.’ She stated to Manafort, ‘What you were doing was LYING to Congress and the American public,’ adding with an unsubtle dig at the White House: ‘If people don’t have facts, democracy can’t work.’
The judge added 73 months to Manafort’s sentence, 30 months of which she allowed to be served concurrently. That’s less than the 10 years that Judge Berman might have piled on, but it was still a painful outcome. Counting time served, Manafort now faces 7.5 years in the Federal penitentiary. Since he will celebrate his 70th birthday in a couple weeks and he appeared in court in a wheelchair, it’s possible that Manafort will never see freedom again.
The chances of that bleak outcome for Trump’s former pal-cum-consigliere increased markedly after Judge Berman spoke. Just minutes after her sentencing, prosecutors in New York unveiled a raft of new charges against Manafort. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance revealed that Manafort now faces 16 state-level charges related to mortgage fraud, conspiracy, and falsifying business records. Vance stated acidly for emphasis, ‘No one is above the law in New York.’
Neither is this necessarily the end of Manafort’s legal woes in New York, and more charges may be coming – none of which President Trump can pardon him for, since these are state, not Federal, crimes. Therefore, it seems increasingly likely that Paul Manafort may die in jail thanks to his 2016 association with Donald J. Trump.
The lessons at hand are clear. Never get on the radar of Federal investigators unless you’ve led a blameless life, since they will find something to charge you with – and if they don’t, state-level prosecutors will. Here Trump’s victory on November 8, 2016, however unexpected, proved Manafort’s undoing, just as it promises to doom numerous other Trump cronies. Like Roger Stone, who faces his own day in Judge Jackson’s court, coming soon; today’s news doesn’t bode well for the self-proclaimed Republican ‘ratfucker.’
Everyone on Team Trump should consider the fate of Paul Manafort as a possible preview of their own. Your legal exposure may be far greater than you think, and if the Feds don’t get you, state-level courts will. There are no exits or off-ramps left for those who broke laws to put Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office.