Judge Amy Berman Jackson made several strong statements before sentencing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on Wednesday. But one, in particular, struck at the core of President Trump’s personal defense in the Russia investigation.
She said the “no collusion” mantra is bunk.
Manafort’s legal team had suggested repeatedly in its sentencing memo that the fact that he hadn’t been found to have colluded with Russia should be a mitigating factor when it came to how much time he would serve in prison. But Jackson not only rejected that argument in sentencing him to 43 additional months in prison, she also rejected the entire argument behind it.
“The ‘no collusion’ refrain that runs through the entire defense memorandum is unrelated to matters at hand,” she said. “The ‘no collusion’ mantra is simply a non sequitur.”
Then she added: “The ‘no collusion’ mantra is also not accurate, because the investigation is still ongoing.”
Claiming something like there was “no collusion” as a defense is within any defendant’s right. It’s basically saying, “There was no crime.” The problem with Trump and his allies — and Manafort’s legal team, in this case — was that they have tried to stretch it much further. They have argued that the lack of proof of collusion thus far is somehow dispositive. They are suggesting that, because it hasn’t been proved, it never happened.
Trump has tried this trick repeatedly for months, misrepresenting statements by key players in the Russia probe. When Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein last year announced indictments of Russians suspected of influencing the 2016 election, he emphasized that those specific indictments included no allegations of collusion. The president and the White House suggested that Rosenstein had essentially just exonerated the Trump campaign, when, in fact, the case simply wasn’t about collusion.
The Post’s Fact Checker earlier this week documented other recent examples. Late last month, Trump took Michael Cohen’s testimony that he hadn’t witnessed any collusion to wrongly suggest that Cohen had said it never happened. At Manafort’s other sentencing last week, his attorney Kevin Downing argued that there was no collusion, and the judge said the case wasn’t about collusion. Trump responded by tweeting this:
“Both the Judge and the lawyer in the Paul Manafort case stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia,” he said. “But the Witch Hunt Hoax continues as you now add these statements to House & Senate Intelligence & Senator Burr. So bad for our Country!”
The Manafort team’s use of the “no collusion” mantra was so conspicuous that Jackson mused that it might be intended for another audience besides the court, an apparent reference to Trump and the possibility of Manafort landing a pardon.
And after sentencing, Downing came out and immediately proved her point for her. “For anyone who was in the courtroom today, what I’m about to say will not be a surprise: Judge Jackson conceded that there was absolutely no evidence of any Russian collusion in this case. So that makes two courts — two courts have ruled no evidence of any collusion with any Russians.”
Downing was jeered and called a “liar” by the crowd assembled. And for the reasons described above, it’s hard to blame the crowd. He had done exactly what Jackson had just rebuked him for doing: oversold the fact that collusion was not proved in this particular case, which wasn’t even about collusion.
The media has been pointing out for months that Trump is overselling all of these examples. But on Wednesday, a judge whose job it is to decide people’s guilt or innocence put it on the record.
“Court is one of those places where facts still matter,” Jackson said, adding at another point: “If the people don’t have the facts, democracy can’t work.”
It’s as if she was speaking directly to the man whose campaign Manafort once ran.