If he had never joined Donald Trump’s campaign, Paul Manafort would likely be a free man today.
Instead, the longtime political consultant is facing just under four years in a federal prison, the latest victim of the intense scrutiny that Trump has drawn to those around him for actions in his first two years in office.
As Judge T.S. Ellis III reminded the crowd at the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. at the start of the lengthy hearing, Manafort was not being sentenced “for anything having to do with collusion with the Russian government to influence this election.”
That’s not to say it was was entirely unrelated to that investigation, however.
Before he became Trump’s campaign chairman in the summer of 2016, Manafort spent years helping Moscow-backed political parties in Ukraine, hiding from U.S. tax officials over $55 million in payments in more than 30 overseas bank accounts, leading to the bank and tax fraud charges.
During the campaign, he joined Donald Trump Jr. and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. At another point, as prosecutors told the judge in an assertion accidentally made public in a court filing, he shared valuable campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, who investigators allege has ties to Russian intelligence.
Manafort’s connections to Russia drew the attention of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose team uncovered the hidden payments and brought the charges as a standard tactic used to pressure valuable witnesses in an investigation into cooperating. For a while, it looked like that might work.
After he was convicted in a related case in a Virginia court in August, Manafort agreed to cooperate and spent hours in Mueller’s office. But prosecutors later accused him of lying and hiding facts from them, including about the Kilimnik meeting.
The sentence was well below guidelines, which recommended a 19- to 24-year prison term. Ellis, who had been skeptical of Mueller’s prosecutors from the start of the trial, said that though Manafort’s crimes were serious, such a long sentence would have been would not have been appropriate.
Manafort is one of six people who worked on Trump’s campaign in some capacity who have since ended up in legal trouble, either for lying to investigators or for illegal dealings in their personal lives. The list includes his one-time junior business partner and deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates; foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos; national security adviser Michael Flynn; Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen; and his longtime informal adviser, Roger Stone.
Trump has called Manafort “decent man” and “a very good person,” raising suspicions that Trump was signaling he would pardon Manafort if he faced serious jail time. At one point, Trump compared the man who ran his nominating convention to the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone, who was eventually jailed for tax evasion.
Looking back on history, who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and “Public Enemy Number One,” or Paul Manafort, political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement – although convicted of nothing? Where is the Russian Collusion?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2018
Still, Manafort is not out of the woods yet. Next week, he faces a separate sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who has been less sympathetic to Manafort, accusing him of a pattern of withholding facts in February.
That case centered on Manafort’s failure to disclose that he was lobbying for the Ukrainian government and what prosecutors call “conspiracy against the United States.”
Those two counts each carry a maximum of five years in prison.