Talk about a slap on the wrist.
Paul Manafort, convicted of eight counts of tax and bank fraud and facing up to 25 years in prison, instead received a paltry 47 months from Judge T.S. Ellis III at his sentencing in Virginia on Thursday evening. Federal sentencing guidelines had called for 20 years for President Trump’s former campaign manager, whose crimes emerged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential cooperation between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
The light sentence, so far below guidelines, left legal observers aghast. Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, called it a “joke.” Defense lawyers took to Twitter to share stories of petty criminals sentenced to much stiffer sentences — a drug possession defendant who got 15 years, another sentenced to 3 to 5 years for stealing quarters from a laundry room. Manafort, 69, may well serve less than his full sentence and will receive credit for time he has served.
Most galling, Manafort didn’t even express remorse for his crimes.
And these were serious offenses, connected to rotten dealings with oppressive governments. Before managing Trump’s campaign, Manafort made a living representing autocratic foreign regimes and was convicted for failing to pay taxes on the income he received for “consulting” for corrupt Russian-aligned politicians in Ukraine.
To say Manafort lived a “blameless life,” as Judge Ellis did on Thursday, is to brush off the odiousness of a man whose own daughter reportedly called his income “blood money.” It also ignores his decision to break a cooperation agreement with prosecutors.
As bad as Manafort’s sentence was, there’s reason to fear the news could get worse. By declining to apologize for his actions at his sentencing, and by continuing to withhold full cooperation with prosecutors, Manafort seems to have placed all his hopes in a presidential pardon. Trump has refused to rule it out, and said Friday he felt “very badly” for the convicted felon.
As long as the Mueller investigation or related probes continue, issuing a pardon to a key player — or promising one down the road — would amount to a blatant act of obstruction of justice and an abuse of power. It would short-circuit the investigations by removing any incentive for witnesses or coconspirators to cooperate. Congress, and especially Senate Republicans, need to convey to the president that if he wants to keep his job it would be a terminal misstep for him to issue or promise any pardons related to the Russia inquiry.
For now, the next judge expected to sentence Manafort — he was also convicted of witness tampering and conspiracy in the District of Columbia — needs to do some damage control and hand down a harsher sentence that’s at least in line with federal guidelines. Nothing less than the perception of fairness in the justice system is at stake.