Did Manafort Play Mueller?

The sentencing of Paul Manafort in Washington, D.C. has extended his low prior sentencing to seven and a half years. While that is no walk in the park for a frail person about to turn 70, it is far less than the 35 years that he was faced with in the two cases. It is hardly an overwhelming sentence and, absent his age, it would be viewed as relatively light. That raises the question address in my earlier column in USA Today. Of course, the addition of the state charges could now make all of this a moot point if Manafort is convicted on the new 16 counts.

Below is the column:

Paul Manafort’s sentencing this week will finally answer not just how long he will have to serve after convictions in two cases but whether, at his age and in diminished health, he is likely to survive a prison term. For special counsel Robert Mueller, the sentencing will also answer a more provocative and embarrassing question: Did Manafort play him?

I raised that question months ago when Manafort pleaded guilty in his Washington, D.C. case after being convicted on eight counts in Virginia. The Virginia counts were the better counts for Manafort. While the prosecutors in Virginia paraded Manafort’s insatiable greed and opulent lifestyle, including his now famous ostrich jacket, it was the D.C. case that would expose Manafort’s sinister associations with corrupt and criminal elements in the Ukraine. The trial would have been a parade of horribles, which would have made a presidential pardon all the more difficult to secure.

Manafort however was able to secure a surprising deal from Mueller. The seven counts in D.C. were reduced to two counts with five-year maximum sentences. Most importantly, Manafort avoided a trial and the need to answer specific charges on his years of corrupt dealings. According to Mueller, Manafort then proceeded to lie and withhold full cooperation while his lawyers maintained a back channel communication to the Trump legal team. Indeed, the filing leading to the loss of the plea deal suggested that Manafort was feeding the Trump team intelligence on the questions and evidence being pursued by Mueller.

Prosecutors are used to a certain degree of Monday-morning quarterbacking on plea deals. However, this question is easier to answer than most. It comes down to a number. Manafort was given an absurdly low sentence by Judge T.S. Ellis III. Ellis even went as far as to say that Manafort has led a largely “blameless life” — producing a certain confusion on whether Manafort has an evil twin responsible for years of notorious practices. Then he gave Manafort a sentence on eight serious felony counts that rejected not just the special counsel’s recommendation of up to 25 years, but the recommendation of his probation officer. It was particularly baffling after Manafort reportedly came within one juror of losing on every count — all 18 counts — in Virginia. 

Trump could commute a short sentence

The Ellis sentence now leaves Manafort with a maximum sentence of 10 years from the two cases. Judge Amy Berman Jackson is certainly less enamored with Manafort after she stripped him of the benefit of his plea deal and previously ordered him jailed pending trial. However, these counts usually run concurrently and for a first offender it is relatively rare to see a maximum sentence. That could mean just five years — a roughly one-year addition to the sentence. If that is the sentence, Mueller most certainly was played by Manafort.

Of course, Jackson is a tough judge and former prosecutor who is well aware of the situation. She could hit Manafort with a 10-year sentence that could easily prove a terminal term for the ailing 70-year-old inmate.

A five-year term would vindicate Manafort’s counsel and their unconventional tactics. The team barely put on a defense in Virginia on the merits. Instead, it attacked the cooperating former aide to Manafort, Rick Gates, and seemed to continually repeat the Trump talking points that there was no collusion. Indeed, lead counsel Kevin Downing not only emphasized the no collusion point at the time his client was charged but returned to that mantra after the sentencing. It was a line that clearly benefited (and pleased) President Donald Trump, but had little relevance to his client except as an obvious play for a pardon.

If Manafort is below five years in his final sentence, Trump could opt to commute all or part of that sentence on the basis of Manafort’s health. Indeed, he could cut it in half on a commutation and argue that he is leaving Manafort as a convicted felon who would have served at least half of his sentence. Not only that but Manafort is still able to keep millions and, while giving up much of his ill-gotten gains, he will be returning to a lifestyle that most Americans can only fantasize about. The possibility of Manafort being shown at some opulent restaurant in his ostrich jacket and signature smirk would make a mockery of the investigation. His filmmaker daughter, Jess Bond, might even change her name back to Manafort.

Special counsels seek truth, not trophies

For Mueller, a less than five-year sentence would leave him in a position that no prosecutor relishes: he would look cuckolded and comical. In reducing the counts to two and bringing Manafort under his tent, he may have given the Trump team badly needed intelligence while limiting Manafort’s exposure. Worse yet, while Mueller has raked up a lot of pleas and convictions, he is hardly swinging for the fences.

While the media loves to cite convicted counts to throw praise at Mueller and shade at Trump, most have little to do with either Trump or Russian collusion. Most of the key players have received relatively light sentences — including just a month or so for figures like Alex van der Zwaan and George Papadopoulos. Other than the Russians who are unlikely to ever see the inside of a U.S. courtroom, the crimes are largely for unrelated transactions crimes, false statements, or registration crimes.

Now Mueller’s matinee defendant could receive a light sentence of roughly 5-7 years after a massive investigation and millions in legal costs. If that occurs, Manafort will only have clowns like Roger Stone left in the pipeline and a president who cannot be indicted in office absent a change in Justice Department policies.

Of course, special counsels should be truth seekers, not trophy seekers, and Mueller is a serious and ethical professional. However, we still do not know what Mueller will offer in a report or what will be left beyond its conclusions after its confidential submission to the attorney general. In other words, Manafort may not be the only one looking for vindication from Judge Jackson on Wednesday.

Jonathan Turley, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley

22 thoughts on “Did Manafort Play Mueller?”

    1. “If Comey had indicted Hillary, Comey would have convicted Obama.”

      – Andrew McCarthy, National Review

        1. The Obama Coup D’etat in America is the most egregious abuse of power and the most prodigious scandal in American political history. The co-conspirators in the Obama Coup D’etat in America are:

          Rosenstein, Mueller/Team, Comey, McCabe, Strozk, Page, Kadzic, Yates, Baker,

          Bruce Ohr, Nellie Ohr, Priestap, Kortan, Campbell, Steele, Simpson, Joseph Mifsud,

          Stefan “The Walrus” Halper, Kerry, Hillary, Huma, Mills, Brennan, Clapper, Lerner,

          Farkas, Power, Lynch, Rice, Jarrett, Sessions, Obama et al.

  1. I came away from this case feeling that the DoJ operates like a mafia. Partly this is because enforcement of federal law is so under-resourced and unpredictable, the U.S. Attys are in a position of arbitrary and capricious uptake of cases. I think Manafort spoke truth to power when he said his association with the Trump campaign was what brought legal attention onto this past misdeeds.

    How many people in Washington routinely defy the FARA law?

    How many people could explain the red line defining violations of “Honest Services Fraud 18 U.S.C. § 1346?”, as the college admissions scammers are charged with?

    It’s mostly Congress’ fault that federal law is written so vaguely and applied so haphazardly.

    It’s infuriating that the political bias would enter into the work of some US Attys on some cases. The Non-Prosecution-Agreement created for Jeffrey Epstein by Alexander Acosta and Dershowitz-Starr is going to be the next shoe to drop on DoJ.

    Manafort’s sentence is a done deal. Do you think it will cause a rush of FARA registrations of foreign agents? I don’t, because Manafort’s prosecution was only to try to “get Trump”.
    Neither Congress nor the DoJ cares about enforcing FARA.

  2. It is ‘relatively light’ only in your imagination, professor. Again, in this country, 60% of all convicted receive no time or time-served-in-the-county jail. Mean time served for the subset remanded to prison is 30 months. And, you should no if you do not that when sentences are not normally distributed, mean time exceeds median time. This man has no priors, he’s not a violent offender or an associate of a violent offender, there was no member of the pubic who suffered a discrete injury from his acts, and his offenses had for 7 years been deemed not worth prosecuting by the Department of Justice.

    1. Yeah but Turley does not seem to have a problem with violent criminals, since he lives in an upper crust neighborhood and doesn’t have to deal with them. He was bemoaning the other day that Manafort, who was convicted of financial crimes that DOJ ignored until he became Trump’s campaign manager, received a lesser sentence than “a kid in Chicago who robs a convenience store.” Personally, I don’t care all that much what Manafort did. If he cheated on his taxes, then pay it back with interest and penalties. But like most Americans, I don’t want some low-IQ, violent “urban youth” sticking a gun in my face. Lock him up until he’s too old to walk!

      1. One problem TIN, A “urban youth” may get maybe if they are lucky 200 bucks and 25 years if caught. Manafort robbed American taxpayers with a pen and got millions and he got months. Manafort got caught, so he pays back and all is well? If the “urban youth” pays back its all well right? Both are criminals, but justice is not equal.

        1. One problem TIN, A “urban youth” may get maybe if they are lucky 200 bucks and 25 years if caught.

          Again, this is a fantasy. In the ordinary course of events, those sorts of sentences get handed out to murderers, drug traffickers, and people with a menu of felony priors.

      2. Turley’s wrong. It’s unlikely the kid in Chicago gets the seven year sentence until he’s been collared the third time robbing a convenience store.

    2. x 2, ” he’s not a violent offender or an associate of a violent offender ” I would think that the citizens and the people of Ukraine and Crimea would disagree. They live under the tyranny of Russia, that Manafort got payed very well for.

  3. Turley wrote, “However, we still do not know what Mueller will offer in a report or what will be left beyond its conclusions after its confidential submission to the attorney general. In other words, Manafort may not be the only one looking for vindication from Judge Jackson on Wednesday.”

    One wonders to whom Turley might be alluding in that last line about vindication. For that matter, vindication for what, exactly? Mueller does not have to vindicate himself for anything at all. At a bare minimum, Mueller has exerted a prophylactic effect on all future campaigns for president in America. Nobody will ever again even dare think of doing what Trump, the Trump campaign, the Trump organization and other Trump associates did in the 2016 presidential election. Not even Trump, himself, would dare think of going back and doing it again. The only person or persons thinking of a repeat performance of the 2016 election are Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin and his cronies amongst the oligarchy.

    OTOH, Turley finally admits out loud on his own blawg that he hasn’t the foggiest notion of when Mueller will submit Mueller’s confidential report to AG Barr. A close reader might infer that AG Barr also has no idea when Mueller will submit that confidential report, otherwise AG Barr would’ve given Turley a heads up on Mueller’s due date. An even closer reader might infer that Mueller’s confidential report to AG Barr will probably not be Mueller’s last words on the subject of Trump, the Trump campaign, the Trump organization and other Trump associates. That is so because Mueller’s confidential report to AG Barr only has to explain Mueller’s prosecution and declination decisions. Whence, if Mueller has not yet made all of his prosecution and declination decisions, then Mueller’s last words on the aforementioned subjects could still take the form of an indictment or a superceding indictment.

    1. Guess what? It is now Sunday March 17th, 2019, and still no reports in the press about AG Barr having received Mueller’s confidential report. There’s still plenty of bloviating about Mueller “wrapping things up”–whatever that might mean. It will be roughly the middle of April at the earliest before Mueller submits his confidential report to AG Barr. And, frankly, the middle of May would make a far more symbolic delivery date for Mueller’s report. Remember: Trump fired Comey on May 9th, 2017, and Rosenstein appoint Mueller on May 17th, 2017. If you want to, you could even call that “wrapping things up”–whatever that might mean.

  4. So Trumpy’s legal team colluded with Manafort’s legal team to gain an advantage over the investigation into prior collusion.

  5. It’s way far too early to poke fun at Robert Swan Mueller III. Manafort and Trump had a Joint Defenses Agreement. A JDA is an exception to the rule that sharing information with people who are not parties to an attorney-client relationship effectively waives the attorney-client privilege whenever codefendants and their counsels have common interests in devising a joint legal defense strategy. We have already seen Trump waive attorney-client privilege by sharing with Republican members of the House Oversight Committee information that Cohen and Cohen’s lawyers had shared with Trump when Cohen’s JDA with Trump was still in force. Trump cannot assert the same attorney-client privilege that Trump has already waived anymore than Cohen could assert that same attorney-client privilege that Cohen had already waived, as well

    Are you still sure that you want the Justice Department to investigate Cohen for alleged perjury when Cohen testified to Congress that he had never sought a pardon from Trump? If Cohen and Trump, alike, have already waived attorney-client privilege on Trump’s dangling of pardons in exchange for Cohen’s previous false testimony to Congress, and if the Justice Department conducts a thoroughgoing investigation of Trump’s dangling of pardons in exchange for Cohen’s false testimony to Congress without either Trump nor Cohen, nor Trump’s lawyers nor Cohen’s lawyers, being protected by the JDA exception to rule for waiving attorney-client privilege, then that same Justice Department can get all up inside of Trump’s pardon dangles to Flynn and Manafort in exchange for Flynn’s false statements and Manafort’s lying in breach of his cooperation agreement.

    Has Mueller played Trump? Who knows? All I know is that it’s way far too early to be poking fun at he who will not be deterred Robert Swan Mueller The Third.

    1. Sycophant! You make him sound like an aristocrat. “the Third.!”
      A presumptuous and annoying name

      List of botched Mueller jobs from his past:

      — botched RICO trial against Hells angels
      — failed in oversight of BOston FBI office where FBI agents were involved in racketeering and murders perpetrated by FBI informant whitey bulger
      — botched anthrax investigation
      — lies about WMDs to Congress

      there’s other stuff too. Your blessed Special Counsel has feet of clay

      1. A presumptuous and annoying name

        Because he’s named after his grandfather? You’ve got an attitude.

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