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Manafort Sentence: Robert Mueller Is Not Invincible

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President Trump certainly sees it that way, celebrating the ruling in a morning tweet that was, by his recent dour standards, positively ebullient:

The sentence is a surprise. Defense attorneys were quick to post examples on social media of harsher sentences given to those convicted of lesser crimes. In the course of acquiring eight felony convictions, Mueller’s team had presented documentary evidence of Manafort’s years of cheating the system. They also came close to convicting Manafort on another 10, but a lone holdout on the jury blocked guilty verdicts.

The short prison term would have been an even bigger surprise had Ellis not expressed deep skepticism of the government’s case during the trial. At one point, he even walked back barbed comments directed at Mueller’s prosecutors, acknowledging he had overstepped. And as my colleague Franklin Foer writes, Ellis’s statement that Manafort had “lived an otherwise blameless life” is impossible to square with the public record.

There are other important caveats. Because Manafort opted for separate trials in Virginia and D.C., he will be separately sentenced in Washington next week, and Judge Amy Berman Jackson has seemed less favorably disposed toward him thus far. That case deals with different offenses, too: Manafort pleaded guilty to witness tampering and conspiracy related to his lobbying work in Ukraine. Since saying in December that Manafort reneged on a plea deal by lying, a conclusion Jackson backed, prosecutors have presented evidence of additional crimes. Jackson could yet impose a steep sentence.

As Trump mentioned in his tweet, Ellis noted on Thursday that Manafort “is not before the court for anything having to do with colluding with the Russian government.” Yet this is less exculpatory than it initially appears, since the Washington case goes much closer to the heart of the collusion question than the financial crimes in the Virginia case.

Moreover, it’s still a major development for Manafort to go to prison. When Trump hired Manafort, he had ample warning about the miasma of scandal that surrounded him and did it anyway. Mueller has so far showed that Trump surrounded himself with criminals—Manafort, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former fixer Michael Cohen. Even now, as yet incomplete, it is one of the worst scandals in American presidential history.

But this is the way the law works: It’s unpredictable and erratic, subject to the whims of a single juror, as in the holdout, or a single judge, as in Thursday’s sentence. Historically, setbacks have been the rule for special counsels. Iran-Contra’s Lawrence Walsh was stymied by Congress and by pardons; Ken Starr found nothing on Whitewater, and suffered some defeats in court as he pursued other matters. This is how it should be. A system in which a prosecutor gets anything she wants is unlikely to deal real justice.

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