Op-Ed: How could anyone think Paul Manafort lived an ‘otherwise blameless’ life?

This courtroom sketch depicts former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, center in a wheelchair, during his sentencing hearing in federal court before Judge T.S. Ellis III in Alexandria, Va., on March 7.
This courtroom sketch depicts former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, center in a wheelchair, during his sentencing hearing in federal court before Judge T.S. Ellis III in Alexandria, Va., on March 7.
(Dana Verkouteren / Associated Press)

As a convicted tax cheat, Paul Manafort stole $6 million from taxpayers.

President Trump’s former campaign chairman then blew his fat stacks on Richie-Rich jive — eye-rollers such as monstrous houses, giraffe lawn ornaments, a limited-edition titanium watch, an ostrich skin jacket, a moat, four Land Rovers, blah blah blah.

Even Judge T. S. Ellis III, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, who obsequiously praised Manafort at the sentencing hearing Thursday, had to concede that the fancy felon’s crimes were “serious,” that he had jacked the American people for his bunk lifestyle fetishes. This, said Ellis, was “a theft of money from everyone who pays their taxes.”

But none of Ellis’ obligatory tut-tutting kept him from yielding to his own disturbing admiration for the infinitesimally repentant convict. In defiance of federal sentencing guidelines, which recommended 19 to 24 years in prison for Manafort-caliber misdeeds, Ellis gave him 47 months in federal prison, with nine months off for time served.


A sentence as light as an ostrich feather.

Who knows how someone like Ellis decides someone like Manafort deserves such magnificent leniency? To start, there’s this: The two men have class, race, gender and, evidently, party in common.

It was when Ellis reflected on Manafort’s character that the proceedings turned downright creepy.

Ellis, who turns 80 in May, was appointed to the bench by President Reagan in 1987. In the same decade, Reagan also appointed Manafort, who campaigned for him, associate director of the personnel office at the White House.

It should go without saying that federal sentencing guidelines are no one’s partisan whim. They were established in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which passed with majority support in both houses. (The ’80s were evidently a weird time when both parties cared about equality and justice.)

The reform was intended to ensure uniformity in the punishment of convicts who might otherwise have their sentences influenced by a judge’s biases or bigotry. The guidelines further serve as a check on a judge’s caprices because anyone who bucks them, as is his or her privilege, risks being seen as biased, or even in someone’s pocket.

Indeed, soon after Ellis announced Manafort’s sentence, his decision came in for scrutiny. He seems to have given Manafort a fair amount of credit for his purported cooperation with the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, even as prosecutor Greg Andres, of Mueller’s team, insisted that Manafort’s cooperation had been close to useless: odd bits the team already knew, plus stone-cold lies. Andres and the rest of the prosecuting team made it clear they thought the 19-to-24-year guidelines were appropriate.


The Eastern District of Virginia, according to federal data, doles out considerably longer sentences for those convicted of fraud than other courts. Not this time. On Twitter came even more eyebrow-raising comps: People not of the ostrich-jacket class sentenced to far more prison time for far, far less serious crimes.

But the judge was well within his powers to choose a short sentence. It was when Ellis reflected on Manafort’s character that the proceedings turned downright creepy.

Ellis commended Manafort as “a good friend” (to murderous oligarchs?) and “a generous person” (with his haberdasher?). Aside from all that bank and tax fraud, Ellis went on, Manafort had lived an “otherwise blameless life.”

To anyone who craves justice or simply a return to reality, that “otherwise blameless” was a punch to the gut — a flat-out Trumpian denial of the public record.

Manafort has been known for more than 40 years as a member of the torturers’ lobby, a list compiled by the Center for Public Integrity in 1992. With his partners, Manafort acted as an all-purpose concierge to brutal dictators and war criminals in Nigeria and Kenya. He also represented Zaire, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Somalia.

Manafort amassed millions by essentially deflecting criticism of his brutal clients and opulently enabling them. Sounds like he found a kindred spirit in Judge Ellis.

For most of us, looking into Manafort’s otherwise blamelessness would have to include questioning his intimacy with one Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI has long believed has links to Russian spy services. Specifically, there was a Manafort-Kilimnik rendezvous in a cigar bar, according to court documents, that Andrew Weissmann of Mueller’s team said goes “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating.”

Still: otherwise blameless in Ellis’ courtroom.

Compare Ellis’ gratuitous hymn to Manafort’s angelic nature with the sentencing memo filed last month by Mueller’s team, which laid out how Manafort “repeatedly and brazenly violated the law” over the course of a decade. Even Manafort’s daughter described her father’s fortune as “blood money” and said he had no “moral or legal compass.” And even when Thomas J. Barrack Jr., Trump’s real estate crony, warmly recommended Manafort as campaign chair, he cited not the operator’s pure heart but his cold blood. He’s “lethal,” Barrack wrote.

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Evidently Manafort is lethal — to the moral reasoning of anyone who, like Ellis, might be blinded by gaudy-white-man social status. For five decades, Manafort has gotten a double-wide pass for his ego, his financial crimes and his whitewashing of regimes accused of human rights abuses.

Next week in the District of Columbia, Manafort will be sentenced on conspiracy charges, related in part to illegal lobbying, that also grew out of the Mueller investigations. Presiding over that case is U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson. She has already proved unimpressed by Manafort’s blamelessness, revoking his bail for contacting witnesses and ruling that he lied prolifically to the FBI, the special counsel and the grand jury.

Jackson is not likely to consider Manafort blameless, as a lobbyist, a cooperating witness or otherwise.

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