Some of Manafort’s alleged crimes, as Trump loves to point out, are more than a decade old!
But the right question isn’t why Mueller is going after Manafort now. It is: Why didn’t someone go after Manafort before? After all, there were just So. Many. Red. Flags.
Manafort is also hardly the only person associated with Trump who has engaged in conspicuously suspicious financial and political activities.
Or there’s the fishy stock trades by Trump cronies, including Carl Icahn and even the current commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross. Ross shorted the stock of a Kremlin-linked company days after he learned journalists were reporting a potentially negative story about the firm. (Both Icahn and Ross have denied engaging in insider trading.)
There’s a clear reason so many Trump-related figures likely felt free to engage in dodgy behavior in broad daylight: They didn’t expect anyone to care. And absent the scrutiny that came with Trump’s political success, such activities probably would have gone ignored.
Yet we have little reason to believe actual levels
of such crimes have decreased. So why has enforcement plummeted? That’s subject to some debate.
The Trump administration has openly prioritized prosecution of other crimes, particularly those related to immigration. But the downward trend in white-collar and official-corruption prosecutions predates the Trump presidency. The Barack Obama administration, you may recall, was often criticized for failing to hold corporations and executives accountable in the wake of the financial crisis.
But undoubtedly part of the issue is resources.
Congress’s draconian budget cuts for the Internal Revenue Service, likewise, caused audit rates to plummet. According to TRAC data, criminal prosecutions referred by the IRS to the Justice Department are about half
their level from just five years ago
and are poised to dip to a new low this year.
Astonishingly, this decline in enforcement is now being cited as evidence of innocence. Manafort’s lawyer, in his opening statement last week,
shamelessly suggested that his client must not be guilty of tax fraud because he’d never been audited.
Likewise, on Fox News, Trump surrogate and former federal prosecutor Joseph diGenova objected to Mueller’s criminal prosecution of Manafort in part because Manafort “has no criminal record.”
Which is, you know, a thing that’s true for every
defendant, until they get prosecuted.
In any case, contra such objections, Manafort’s prosecution today is less a sign of Mueller’s overreach, and more a sign of the rest of our federal government’s decades of underperformance.