Jurisprudence

William Barr’s Justice Department Is Now Openly Running Legal Interference for Paul Manafort

President Donald Trump listens to Attorney General William Barr during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House May 22, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
President Donald Trump listens to Attorney General William Barr during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on May 22 in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s Department of Justice has decided to run interference for Paul Manafort, protecting him from harsh imprisonment and even questioning the validity of charges brought against him by state prosecutors. This effort to aid the president’s loyal associate behind bars is a startling escalation of Attorney General William Barr’s campaign to help Trump and his confederates evade consequences for their misdeeds.

Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2018 then pleaded guilty to illegal foreign lobbying and witness tampering. He was first prosecuted by special counsel Robert Mueller, who secured a 7.5-year federal prison sentence earlier this year. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance then brought 16 additional charges under New York law. Manafort is currently housed in Loretto, a federal prison in southwest Pennsylvania, and Vance’s office requested his transfer to a New York facility. (Typically, federal prisoners awaiting trial in New York state court are held in the notoriously brutal Rikers Island jail.)

In May, Manafort attorney Todd Blanche wrote a letter to Vicky Moser, Loretto’s warden, protesting this transfer. Blanche asked that Manafort be allowed to remain in Loretto to address his “health challenges” and preserve his “reasonable access to counsel.” And Blanche had another reason his client deserved special treatment: Manafort, Blanche alleged, “is being prosecuted in New York for exactly the same conduct for which he has already been tried and sentenced” in federal court. The New York prosecution thus “appears to be a blatant violation” of the state’s “long-standing and highly protective” double jeopardy laws. Condemning Vance’s actions as “politics at its worst,” Blanche declared that Vance is “attempting to add insult to injury” by placing his client on Rikers Island. In other words, Manafort should not be moved to New York because the New York charges against him are invalid.

By itself, this letter would be unremarkable, a plea from his top-shelf lawyer that Manafort be treated better than virtually every other inmate in the United States. What is remarkable—indeed, shocking—is that the deputy attorney general, the second-highest law enforcement official in the country, seemed to implicitly endorse Blanche’s complaints. On June 11, Jeffrey Rosen forwarded the letter to Vance’s office and asked for a “response” before federal officials made “a decision” about moving Manafort to New York. Rosen even gave Vance a deadline, asking him to respond within a week.

On June 14, Vance responded to Rosen granting Blanche’s request. He also forwarded Rosen a separate letter written by Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy to Loretto’s warden. Conroy described the proposed arrangement as “a departure from usual practice” and “inconsistent” with the Interstate Agreement on Detainers. But the district attorney would allow it anyway, almost certainly because Rosen threw the weight of the Department of Justice behind the effort to protect Manafort and attack state charges that Trump would not be able to pardon.

Conroy further noted that the district attorney’s office never actually tried to put Manafort at Rikers Island; it merely sought “temporary custody” in any nearby facility so Manafort could be “made available for arraignment and subsequent proceedings in a timely manner.” Regardless, the district attorney would let Manafort remain at Loretto so long as the feds promised to make him available in New York court “without interruption or delay.”

Vance himself responded to Blanche’s accusations that the New York charges are an illegal violation of double jeopardy. These “gratuitous” arguments, Vance wrote, “have no place in a routine procedural analysis” of inmate relocation. Conroy’s letter also pointed out that if Manafort “believes he has valid statutory double jeopardy” defenses, he “will have a full opportunity to pursue” them in New York court.

For the record, Blanche is probably right that some charges in the New York indictment should fall under the state’s unusually strict double jeopardy regime. But Vance brought other charges under state laws with elements and purposes distinct from their federal counterparts that could to fall outside of double jeopardy protections. For instance, New York laws criminalizing the falsification of business records differ substantially from the federal fraud charges for which Manafort was convicted. While Blanche can mount a plausible argument that the New York indictment runs afoul of state double jeopardy charges, it is certainly not so clear-cut that the state charges should be treated as entirely illegitimate.

I happen to think that no one should be housed in Rikers Island, a hotbed of human rights abuses that ought to be permanently shuttered. I also think states should be prohibited from prosecuting an individual for a crime already punished by the federal government. But I do not believe that the United States Department of Justice should intervene on behalf of the president’s associate to secure benefits for him that no other prisoner receives. It is, in fact, an appalling perversion of the agency’s putative integrity, particularly in light of persistent speculation that Trump may pardon Manafort.

If he does, the task will fall to states to hold Manafort accountable for his crimes, since the president cannot pardon state offenses. Rosen’s letter creates two inescapable impressions: First, that the Department of Justice—so recently responsible for putting Manafort behind bars—is now attempting to keep him as comfortable as possible until Trump issues his pardon; and second, that the DOJ is working to undermine the validity of state charges against Manafort so that he would not languish in state prison if he receives a presidential pardon.

None of this is surprising with Barr in control of the DOJ. A chronic liar and smear artist, Barr has swiftly sullied the agency, turning it into an especially powerful arm of Trump’s PR machine. He and his deputies have all but announced that they have Manafort’s back. Even as the DOJ slow-walks and obstructs the implementation of the First Step Act, keeping rehabilitated prisoners incarcerated for no reason, it helps protect Manafort from the cruelties of the criminal justice system. This is a level of corruption usually only seen in kleptocratic nations. Now it’s right out in the open in these United States.