On Thursday afternoon, federal district court Judge T. S. Ellis sentenced Paul Manafort to 47 months in prison for his conviction on eight felony counts of tax fraud, bank fraud, and hiding foreign accounts. The sentence was much shorter than most observers had expected, and a very significant deviation from the federal sentencing guidelines of 19 to 25 years. In closing arguments, Ellis was reminded that Manafort had promised cooperation to prosecutors, then lied to them. He was aware that Manafort had spent much of the trial period in prison because he had engaged in witness tampering and intimidation. He was aware that Manafort had disputed the facts of the case during trial. And he listened to Manafort give a closing statement in which he failed to ever admit guilt or remorse.
Then Ellis gave a brief speech in which he declared that Paul Manafort, yes, Paul Manafort, that Paul Manafort “has lived an otherwise blameless life.” Where “blameless” includes helping Russia overthrow a Democratic government, staging riots to thwart NATO expansion in which U.S. Marines were pelted with stones, and representing dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, and Ukrainian Russian-puppet leader Viktor Yanukovych, and oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and … Donald Trump.
In lying to the court, lying to investigators, failing to show contrition, violating his probation, and tampering with witnesses, Manafort did all the things that are supposed to earn not just the maximum sentence, but additional punishment. Judge Ellis admitted during his pre-sentencing statement that Manafort’s crimes were “very serious.” And yet … what Manafort got wasn’t the 24-year maximum, or the 19-year minimum, or even the 10 years some had suggested in light of his age. He got 47 months. Judge Ellis gave Manafort an astounding 80 percent reduction from the minimum guidelines. For … blamelessness, apparently.
As noted by everyone, everywhere, the length of Manafort’s sentence is astoundingly short. Such a serious deviation from sentencing guidelines is generally reserved for instances in which there is some genuine cause for leniency. In this case, the source of that leniency seems simple enough: Judge Ellis wanted to deliver a slap to the special counsel’s office.
Though no one else in the courtroom had mentioned it, Ellis injected into the conversation that Manafort was “not before this court for anything having to do with collusion with the Russian government to influence this election.” That statement didn’t seem to have anything to do with Manafort’s appearance in the court.
But it had a lot to do with Ellis’ position during the trial. As Politico reported a year ago, Ellis repeatedly challenged the special counsel’s office during the early part of the trial. He questioned the legitimacy of its investigation of Manafort, declared that Manafort was only being prosecuted to “tighten the screws” on Donald Trump, and declared, “I don’t see what relation this indictment has with what the special counsel is authorized to investigate.”
In a hearing, Ellis interrupted the case being presented by the special counsel’s office to blast it with his disdain. “You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” said the judge. “What you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment.”
While Ellis later refused a motion that would have stopped the trial, it was clear from the beginning that he had disdain for the entire notion of a special counsel, and in particular for this investigation. And Ellis embraced the central argument that’s been put forward by Trump and others on the right: Manafort’s crimes don’t matter, because if it wasn’t for the special counsel, he would have gotten away with it.
On Thursday afternoon, Ellis delivered a sentence based not on the federal sentencing guidelines, Manafort’s behavior, or any evidence presented in court. He delivered a sentence that came directly out of his political views. It’s exactly the kind of thing that makes Mitch McConnell’s heart glow as he thinks about the courts filling up with Donald Trump’s politically minded appointees.
It’s also a sentence that will definitely impact the willingness of others involved in the Russia investigation to cooperate with the special counsel. Judge Ellis did more to damage the investigation than every tweet from Trump.