Opinion writer

Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chief, was sentenced to a mere 47 months for eight white-collar crime convictions. In handing down his sentence, Judge T.S. Ellis added insult to injury by stating Manafort had lived a “blameless” life before getting caught committing a host of crimes. Ellis seems to have been unaware that for a good deal of his adult life, Manafort made money — blood money, his own daughter called it — representing a rogues’ gallery of butchers. Newsweek recounted his non-Russian clientele:

Manafort has previously worked in other continents. His first lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, which he ran with fellow Trump aid and political consultant Roger Stone, has been nicknamed the "torturers’ lobby" for having represented so many political leaders involved in human rights abuses.

“Last year, Kenya received $38 million in U.S. foreign aid, and spent over $1.4 million on Washington lobbyists to get it. Nigeria received $8.3 million and expended in excess of $2.5 million. Whom did both countries call upon to do their bidding before the U.S. government? The lobbying firm of Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly Public Affairs Co., which received $660,000 from Kenya in 1992-1993 and $1 million from Nigeria in 1991,” details a report from the Center for Public Integrity published in the early 1990s.

And yet, he led an exemplary life, we are to believe?

Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe tweeted, “Judge Ellis’s assessment that Manafort led an ‘otherwise blameless life’ was proof that he’s unfit to serve on the federal bench. I’ve rarely been more disgusted by a judge’s transparently preferential treatment to a rich white guy who betrayed the law and the nation.”

Indeed, that reaction was widespread, as legal experts were flummoxed by the slap on the wrist for a sophisticated, greedy and unrepentant criminal. “The sentence is ridiculous, and Ellis’s comments about Manafort’s blameless life are outrageous,” former DOJ spokesman Matthew Miller told me.

Manafort did not commit just one crime but eight, the jury found. His crime spree continued for a decade as he deliberately cheated on his taxes, defrauded banks and hid foreign bank accounts. His motive was pure greed and, to this day, he has yet to acknowledge guilt. He was “humiliated,” he said in court, because he got caught.

Former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah observed, “I think it is a shockingly low sentence given what the recommended guidelines were. I have very rarely seen this drastic of a departure absent some extraordinary reason. And the fact that Manafort wasn’t remorseful and the judge still gave him a very lenient sentence is just mouth-gaping.”

This is not the end of Manafort’s sentencing. He will be sentenced for a different set of crimes in federal court in the District of Columbia next week. Perhaps there his conduct tampering with a witness after arrest and lying to prosecutors in violation of a cooperation agreement will come into play. Miller notes that “the Mueller team has another card to play. They decided to wait until after this sentence was handed down to recommend whether Manafort’s D.C. sentence be served consecutively or concurrently, and I suspect you will see them ask Judge [Amy Berman] Jackson to throw the book at him next week.”

Ellis’s ruling will only perpetuate the view of many Americans that if you are rich and white, you get one standard of justice; if poor and nonwhite, another. Minimal sentences give huge incentives for white-collar criminals, who will make a cost-benefit analysis and conclude it’s worth the risk to lie, defraud, cheat, etc. if the only real downside is the possibility of a few years in a relatively cushy federal prison.

In the case of Manafort, the result is especially perverse. Former prosecutor Joyce Vance White tells me, “It’s almost as though the judge has bought President Trump’s line of thinking, that unless people are convicted of collusion, no other crime matters.” White continues, “Manafort was convicted of serious crimes and should’ve been sentenced within the guideline range. I expect Judge Jackson to run her sentence consecutive to this one, which will lead to a more appropriate result.”

The light ruling also hobbles prosecutors by discouraging cooperation. What’s the point of cooperating, as Michael Cohen did, to get a few years in jail when you can remain defiant and get just about the same punishment? White notes, “This sentence looks a lot more like what you would have expected if Manafort had cooperated with the government.”

Perhaps Judge Jackson will help correct this grievous injustice. Americans deserve better than what Ellis handed down Thursday.

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