When news broke that Paul Manafort had received a staggeringly short 47-month sentence for bank fraud and cheating on his taxes, the legal internet blew up. Under federal sentencing guidelines disregarded by U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis, Manafort faced up to 20–24 years in prison. One criminal defense lawyer after another shared much longer sentences handed out to clients who didn’t own custom ostrich jackets or owe millions to the IRS. This included a tweet from Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, whose client was recently offered a 36-to-72-month sentence for stealing $100 worth of quarters from a laundry room. Or consider the five-year prison sentence handed out to Crystal Mason, who voted in 2016 while on probation, which she says she didn’t know was prohibited. Even those who argue that mandatory minimum sentences (which are different than the federal sentencing guidelines) in the United States are appallingly high largely agreed that Manafort’s was not the case with which to experiment on leniency.
At the sentencing, Ellis remarked that Manafort had led an “otherwise blameless life,” was “generous,” and loved his family. This despite the fact that his life was quite literally devoted to lobbying for foreign interests that were in some cases vile criminals and to creaming money from one scheme after the next to enrich himself at the expense of his business associates. Frank Foer has done the definitive takedown of Ellis’ comments. But the most important revelation from the hearing is that Ellis is hardly alone in normalizing the criminal conduct of powerful white men. He gave Manafort a pass for doing precisely what Donald Trump, his adult children, and several of his Cabinet members do every day. He put his own legal imprimatur on Trump’s aphorism: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.” Manafort did not apologize at his sentencing, and Ellis chided him for that. “I was surprised I did not hear you express regret,” he said. Yet he promptly handed down a sentence so lenient it basically had a nail file baked right into it.
This case had nothing to do with Russian collusion, as Ellis was quick to point out and the president was quick to crow about (incorrectly). Manafort had been found guilty on eight felony counts—five counts of tax fraud, one of failure to file a report of foreign bank and financial accounts, and two counts of bank fraud. This was just about grift and greed and lying and then witness tampering to cover it up. Manafort faces another sentencing next week in a federal court in Washington, by a judge who may not be as generous.
Beyond his marked antipathy for prosecutors, the underlying sin of Ellis’ findings seems to be his willingness to sign off on the idea that literally decades of criminal behavior—tax fraud, deception, lies to banks, and more lies to cover it—are more or less honorable business conduct just two shades griftier than the glittering path of the American dream. Manafort gets credit, in other words, for having his heart in the right place, as he lied and cut corners and cheated his own partners and clients. Who among us hasn’t suffered similar missteps on the road to making our millions?
In their sentencing memo to the judge in February, federal prosecutors described Manafort’s conduct as “serious, longstanding, and bold,” adding that “the government has not located a comparable case with the unique array of crimes and aggravating factors.” This wasn’t an honorable businessman guilty of a little misstep: “Manafort acted for more than a decade as if he were above the law, and deprived the federal government and various financial institutions of millions of dollars.” But really, Ellis seems to suggest, aren’t those just different words for “winner”?
Put another way, Ellis’ impulse to forgive Manafort for the way he constructed his life of near-fame and power-brokering is precisely the same impulse that allows some Americans to forgive Donald Trump for cheating on his taxes. (He famously claimed not paying taxes makes him “smart.”) It’s the same impulse that allows so many Americans to forgive Trump’s adult children and business for profiting off the presidency, whether by way of Chinese trademarks for Ivanka or soaring occupancy rates at Trump hotels by those seeking to curry favor. It’s the impulse that allows Trump fans to be largely unbothered by Jared Kushner’s undying friendship with the Saudi crown prince responsible for the hideous murder and dismemberment of a Washington Post reporter. It’s also the impulse that leads some congressional Democrats to claim that going after Trump’s adult children would be deemed excessively punitive. In the world of high-flying, millionaire-adjacent activities, pretty much anything is sketchy and pretty much everything is permissible, until you get caught. All this lying, and covering up, and tax evading, and money laundering, is just the cost of doing business.
You can certainly be affronted that Ellis more or less came right out and sentenced Manafort to the shortest sentence imaginable while praising his honor, generosity, and good nature. I am. But having knowingly voted to elect a president who is a serial shorter of his own contractors, launderer of dirty money, and unabashed tax cheat—under the theory that this is what great businessmen do—Americans should hardly be surprised. This is what success, power, and ambition look like in 2019.
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