To stand up for a principle, you must defend the least popular, least sympathetic individual who is attacked in violation of that principle.
To stand up for a principle, you must defend the least popular, least sympathetic individual who is attacked in violation of that principle. Because the attack on a principle always starts and is most likely to prosper when the principle is violated “for a good cause.”
Lawyer and international lobbyist Paul Manafort, one-time Trump campaign manager, hireling of dubious foreign politicians, consummate political manipulator—sentenced this week to 47 months in prison—should have been protected by the principles “no politically motivated criminal prosecutions” and “equal justice under law.”
Instead, as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz commented back in July, Paul Manafort’s “crime” was associating with Donald Trump. Dershowitz, denounced a “traitor” by his liberal friends, has regularly and fiercely attacked Democrats for a double standard in “going after” Trump since the day he was elected. And fiercely attacked advocates of “civil liberties” for putting aside their principles and scruples to “get” Trump.
Actually, of course, everyone knows that. Today, says Dershowitz, there are no civil libertarians remaining on the left. They are all out of the shop “fishing”—for Trump.
It has taken federal special prosecutor Robert Mueller more than two years to get Mr. Manafort sentenced to jail. None of the eight charges on which Manafort was convicted relate to the “Russia collusion” Mueller was appointed to investigate and none occurred while Manafort was associated with Trump.
The “squeeze” by Mueller pressured him into a plea bargain. It also pressured him into agreeing to testify against President Trump.
Manafort began by denying all charges, but, as Mueller and his team piled one upon another, the 69-year-old lawyer was looking at the real possibility of life in prison. And so, as Dershowitz said, the “squeeze” by Mueller pressured him into a plea bargain. It also pressured him into agreeing to testify, which, of course, Mueller hoped meant against President Trump.
In order to “get” Manafort, Mueller “popped” potential witnesses by the fistful. At one point, he handed the judge a list of five individuals who had agreed to testify against Manafort in exchange for their own immunity from prosecution. Manafort’s business partner, Rick Gates, indicted along with Manafort, made a deal with Mueller to testify against Manafort in exchange for a lenient sentence.
It is instructive to see the charges against Manafort. On at least one charge, apparently, Manafort was exonerated eight years ago by Rod Rosenstein (later attorney general of the United States).
In a story back in August 2018, with the headline “Paul Manafort Could Spent the Rest of His Life in Prison,” CNBC gave some examples of the charges and evidence:
One of only two examples given in the CNBC story: Manafort falsely claimed that a New York City condo he owned was “owner-occupied” but at that time actually was being rented.
Example number two is that Manafort was alleged to have overstated the 2015 income from one of his many businesses.
Of the 18 such counts, the jury found Manafort guilty of eight, and on the other 10 counts reached no verdict. Manafort and his lawyers, by the way, had asked for a change of trial venue from Alexandria, VA, where, in the 2016 Presidential election, Trump won five percent of the vote and Hillary Clinton won 95 percent. The judge said you can’t move trials based on voting in elections.
I have not gone into the specific charges, the evidence, or the give-and-take at the trial. It seems likely that some of the charges were bona fide: illegal acts under various financial and banking regulations. But it is more than likely, it is certain that no prosecutor would have come across these violations (e.g., a statement on a loan application a decade or more ago that an apartment described as “owner occupied” was at that time being rented).
No, such violations would be discovered only by an elite team of lawyers with unlimited federal funds, with years in which to conduct their investigation, with power to immunize dozens of witnesses, with discretion to plea bargain for other witnesses, and—above all—with a laser-like target: any Trump associate or former associate who might be “flipped” to become a special prosecutor witness against President Trump.
Vital principles that protect us all—“no politically motivated criminal prosecutions” and “equal justice under law”—have gone down in the usual sordid way.
The usual Democrats, media pundits, and Hollywood types greeted Manafort’s prison sentence with glee. In truth, today, vital principles that protect us all—“no politically motivated criminal prosecutions” and “equal justice under law”—have gone down in the usual sordid way.
Nor is Mueller’s team done with Manafort. They racked up additional charges of foreign lobbying violations and witness tampering. Those became part of Manafort’s plea bargain, whereby he would testify (which is all Mueller ever wanted) in exchange for a “cap” on potential prison time. But prosecutors say that in some testimony he didn’t tell the truth (his testimony did not damage President Trump), so the plea deal is off and Mueller’s frustrated team has asked for a 24-year sentence and $24 million fine.
Notice the strategy. With a team able to assert more than two dozen charges, with the years-per-charge adding up like an inflated car-repair service bill, Mueller can tell Manafort: It’s hopeless. You might beat 15 or 20 charges, but the remaining ones still put you in jail for years. And you’re 69. Inevitably, Manafort breaks. Even if, as one judge warned, he not only “sings” but “composes” (makes up, embellishes) testimony against Trump, what has he got to lose? Anything less than life behind bars is a gain.
A man who worked near the heart of politics, entered for decades into “big deals,” and perhaps lived at the edge of the legal/regulatory fence that loops our lives has been sentenced to prison because he had the misfortune of associating with the wrong presidential candidate. (As Alan Dershowitz comments, if Hillary Clinton had won the election, Republicans almost certainly would not be conducting this years-long dragnet to try to ensnare and impeach her.)
Emphatically, it is not the innocence of Manafort that is the issue, here; it is the gross misconduct of the prosecution.
Emphatically, it is not the innocence of Manafort that is the issue, here; it is the gross misconduct of the prosecution in terms of motivation and concern for equal justice.
I agree with Mr. Dershowitz that President Trump should have pardoned Manafort before he caved and made his plea bargain. Most commentators say that now Trump cannot pardon him.
With that, I disagree. What was done to Manafort was done to him as a proxy for Trump. What was done was a clear miscarriage of justice and that is the point of pardons. And what was done was purely politically motivated, and, for both our politics and our justice system, that is pure poison.