Manafort faces sentencing in Washington in Mueller special counsel case
WASHINGTON - Once a globe-trotting political operative and campaign chairman for President Donald Trump, Paul Manafort returns to federal court Wednesday, March 13, as a felon awaiting word on how much more prison time he could receive in the hard fall from his power-broker days.
Manafort faces up to 10 years after pleading guilty in September in Washington to conspiring to defraud the United States by hiding millions he earned as an unregistered lobbyist for Ukrainian politicians over a decade and conspiring to tamper with witnesses after he was charged.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington, D.C., scheduled Manafort's sentencing hearing to begin at 9:30 a.m. in one of the most high-profile cases brought in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Any term Jackson imposes could overlap with or be served in addition to the nearly four years the 69-year-old Manafort received last week in federal court in Alexandria on related tax and bank fraud convictions at trial.
The sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III of Alexandria, Virginia, stirred debate about whether it was too light because it was far less than the roughly 20 years Manafort had faced under federal sentencing guidelines.
Manafort's Virginia trial last summer laid bare a lavish lifestyle, bolstered by his foreign lobbying patrons and undercut when his overseas business and clients dried up.
The case against Manafort in Washington focused more on his Ukraine work and election-year contacts with a longtime Russian aide. Those contacts went "very much to the heart of what the special counsel's office is investigating," prosecutor Andrew Weissman alleged at a February hearing before Jackson.
Manafort pleaded guilty Sept. 14 in the Washington case to a wide-ranging conspiracy involving obstruction of justice, money laundering, secret overseas bank accounts and false statements to the Justice Department.
He agreed to cooperate with Mueller but broke that deal, Jackson ruled, by lying to the FBI, prosecutors and grand jurors during more than 50 hours of interviews.
Because he breached his plea deal, prosecutors need no longer abide by their pledge to consider recommending leniency for Manafort in exchange for his substantial help.
Jackson found that Manafort's lies included matters "material" to the Mueller probe, including interactions with his longtime Russian aide in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the FBI assessed to have ties to Russian intelligence.
Manafort misled prosecutors about interactions with Kilimnik, particularly an August 2016 meeting in New York City at the height of the campaign, Jackson found.
One subject the men discussed was a proposed resolution to the conflict over Ukraine, an issue of great interest to the Russian government, according to a partially redacted transcript of a Feb. 4 hearing before Jackson.
During the same hearing, the judge also appeared to allude to another possible interaction at the Havana Room gathering: a handoff by Manafort of internal polling data from Trump's presidential campaign to his Russian associate.
Kilimnik has denied having connections to Russian intelligence and is believed to be in Russia. He was indicted with Manafort on charges of conspiring to tamper with witnesses in Manafort's D.C. case but is unlikely to be brought to court because Russia does not extradite its citizens.
Manafort's attorneys have said in court filings, and repeated after his Virginia sentencing, that he was never accused of collusion or any Russia-related crimes.
The second sentencing will mark a milestone in Manafort's legal saga, which began in October 2017 when he and his longtime employee and campaign deputy Rick Gates became the first defendants publicly charged in Mueller's probe. Gates later pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI. He agreed to cooperate with the investigation and has yet to be sentenced.
Manafort faced two federal trials because he exercised his option to keep the tax and bank fraud charges in the state where he lived.
At trial in Virginia in August, a jury found him guilty on eight counts and deadlocked on 10 others.
On Sept. 14, on the eve of jury selection for his trial in Washington, Manafort pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the Mueller team.
In sentencing memos to Jackson, prosecutors did not ask for a specific term to be imposed but urged it be enough to deter Manafort and others from committing similar crimes.
In their memo, prosecutors cast Manafort's conduct as the work of a veteran political operator who served at the pinnacle of both an American presidential campaign and his own, secretive lobbying operation, yet who was also a serial liar and a "bold . . . hardened" actor who undertook "concerted criminal action" spanning years.
Manafort "lied to the . . . FBI, this office, and the grand jury," prosecutors wrote. But his deceit also extended to tax preparers, bookkeepers, banks, the Treasury and Justice Departments and his own lawyers, prosecutors contended.
Manafort's team appealed for less time, arguing he was singled out by prosecutors for lobbying and financial crimes unrelated to Russian collusion with Trump's campaign and "vilified in a manner that this country has not experienced in decades."
Manafort "is presented to this Court by the government as a hardened criminal who 'brazenly' violated the law and deserves no mercy. But this case is not about murder, drug cartels, organized crime, the Madoff Ponzi scheme or the collapse of Enron," his defense wrote.
They highlighted his work for a succession of Republican presidents and presidential candidates including Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole and presented him as a victim of vindictive prosecutors desperate to "tighten the screws" on a witness at the apex of Trump's campaign to "flip" and implicate others, attorneys Kevin M. Downing, Thomas E. Zehnle and Richard W. Westling wrote.
Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 and left in late August of that year amid reports about his payments for his political work in Ukraine.
Manafort at last week's sentencing asked for compassion.
"The last two years have been the most difficult years for my family and I," Manafort said. "To say that I feel humiliated and ashamed would be a gross understatement."
"My life is professionally and financially in shambles," he said. The worst pain, he said, "is the pain my family is feeling," adding that he had drawn strength from the "outpouring of support" he had received despite the "media frenzy."
This article was written by Spencer S. Hsu, a reporter for The Washington Post.