Manafort sentencing a watershed moment for Mueller inquiry

Scrutiny on Trump’s financial affairs and potential links with Russia intensifying

Donald Trump’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort: sentenced to 47 months for tax crimes and bank fraud. Video: New York Times

 

The sentencing of Paul Manafort, once the doyen of Republican backroom politics and a central figure in US president Donald Trump’s campaign team, represents a dramatic moment in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Manafort, who is suffering from gout, arrived at a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, on Thursday in a wheelchair, wearing a green prison jumpsuit. It’s a spectacular fall from grace for a man who once flaunted his wealth.

Last year, during a two-week trial, the same court heard details of an extravagant lifestyle that Manafort had funded from undeclared work for Ukrainian oligarchs and, when that dried up, loans that had been granted on the back of bogus financial information. From ostrich-skin garments to homes in the Hamptons, Virginia and Brooklyn, Manafort lived a rarefied life.

Manafort made a personal appeal in court, saying he was 'humiliated and ashamed', but stopped short of apologising

It was offences connected to his financial affairs – uncovered as part of the Mueller investigation – that were the subject of the trial that ended with his sentencing on Thursday. He is to be sentenced in Washington next week in a separate case on two counts of conspiracy.

Thursday’s sentencing surprised many observers. While sentencing guidelines had suggested that the 69-year-old might face anything from a 19- to 24-year prison term, in the end he was sentenced to 47 months.

Announcing his decision, Judge Ellis said Manafort had “lived an otherwise blameless life”.

Manafort himself made a personal appeal in court, saying he was “humiliated and ashamed”, but he stopped short of apologising.

Light sentence

Close observers of the case were not so surprised at the outcome, noting that the 78-year-old judge had sparred often with prosecutors for the special counsel during the trial. Seeming to pre-empt the reaction to the light sentencing, the judge told the court that anyone concerned that the punishment was not harsh enough should “go and spend a day, a week in jail or in the federal penitentiary. He has to spend 47 months.” Manafort has already been in solitary confinement in a Virginia prison since June.

While Thursday’s decision means that Manafort is now unlikely to spend the rest of his life behind bars – the time he has already spent in prison may be offset against his 47-month sentence – he faces the prospect of additional prison time when he returns to court in DC next Wednesday.

There he will face Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who found him guilty of lying to investigators about three matters relating to the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, after he had earlier reached a co-operation agreement with prosecutors. He has pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges in this case, each of which carries a maximum of five years in prison. The judge can decide whether to run his sentences concurrently.

Trump reacted to the sentencing of his former campaign manager as he left Washington for Alabama on Friday, telling reporters he felt “very badly” for Manafort and repeating that there was “no collusion” with Russia.

Manafort is one of more than 30 people to have been indicted by the Mueller investigation – six of whom are former Trump associates. While Manafort’s lawyers said after Thursday’s hearing that the case proved that there was no collusion between their client and the Russian government, he has been found guilty of lying about three issues relating to the Russia investigation in the Washington DC case. Further, the special counsel has still not completed his investigation into Russian interference.

Looming subpoenas

Manafort’s sentencing comes at the end of a difficult week for Trump. Several congressional committees have stepped up their investigations into the president’s affairs and possible links with Russia. On Monday, the House judiciary committee sent letters to 81 individuals and entities, including Trump’s family members and former employees such as Sean Spicer and Hope Hicks, demanding information. They have two weeks to comply or face subpoenas.

US president Donald Trump: the House of Representatives is turning up the heat on him. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times
US president Donald Trump: the House of Representatives is turning up the heat on him. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times

Simultaneously, the House intelligence committee wrote to the state department seeking records of Trump’s conversations with Russian president Vladimir Putin and access to notes taken by translators during his meeting with Putin in Helsinki last year. Separately, the House ways and means committee is finalising plans to demand Trump’s tax returns and other financial documents.

As the House of Representatives, which has been controlled by the Democrats since January, turns up the heat on Trump, expectations are that the Mueller investigation will wrap up imminently.

While Democrats stressed this week that impeachment was still a long way down the road, a senior member of the party, Jerry Nadler, the head of the House judiciary committee, said he believed the president had obstructed justice. Any decision to begin impeachment proceedings would begin with Nadler’s committee.

While the Trump administration is expected to fight requests for information, citing executive privilege, the prospect of multiple investigations into the financial and other affairs of the president is not welcome news for him as he prepares to seek re-election next year.

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