Closing arguments ended Wednesday in the federal court trial of Paul Manafort on 18 bank and tax fraud charges. If you’ve been following most media coverage of the trial, you may think it’s somehow connected to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s seemingly endless investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump presidential campaign.
After all, Mueller filed the charges against Manafort, who was Donald Trump’s presidential campaign chairman. And, aside from the charges of lying on bank-loan applications, Manafort is charged with failing to pay taxes stemming from his work for a Russian-backed Ukrainian president. Meanwhile, international media attention is focused on this case like it is the trial of the century. So it must be a really big deal and somehow involve Donald Trump or at least his campaign, right?
Wrong. The trial involves Manafort’s business dealings and tax filings going back to 2006 – long before he ever signed on as a volunteer on the Trump presidential campaign.
When jurors, who begin deliberations Thursday, hand down a verdict – regardless of what it is – the verdict will deal with the conduct of Paul Manafort, not President Trump or his campaign.
Look at it this way: imagine someone worked for you on a project for several months. And then suppose you learn two years later that this person committed crimes 12 years ago – crimes you never knew about. Would you be guilty for allowing the volunteer to do work for you, even if it was on a high-level?
Of course you wouldn’t. Even asking the question seems absurd.
The other media narrative is that the Manafort case is open and shut: members of Manafort’s defense team only took one day to make their case, and Manafort didn’t even take the stand to testify in his own defense. In contrast, Mueller’s prosecutors took 10 days and 27 witnesses to lay out their case.
But Manafort not taking the stand was a strategic decision made by his defense team. His testimony could be used against him in his upcoming September trial on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent when lobbying Congress.
The decision by the defense team to not drag out their case was strategic as well. Manafort’s defense blames the fraud on Manafort’s former employee Rick Gates, the prosecution’s star witness, who admitted in sworn testimony to stealing money from Manafort. On the other hand, Gates – who has pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors to get off with a light sentence – says he conducted the fraud at the direction of Manafort.
Right or wrong, the defense’s argument revolves around discrediting Rick Gates. And Manafort’s attorneys have already done this during cross-examination of Gates, while the prosecution was making its case.
As for Manafort’s supposed ties to Russia, the media once again leave out a big part of the story. The usual narrative sticks closely to the words of NPR’s Ron Elving: “Manafort has been shown to have extensive entanglements with Russians,” including “debts to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s inner-circle of associates.”
It sounds pretty clear-cut, except it isn’t. Recent reporting suggests that Oleg Deripaska was possibly employing both Christopher Steele and Glenn Simpson, the two Democratic-funded operatives behind the Steele dossier alleging ties between Trump and Russia.
This narrative also forgets to mention that Manafort’s 2013 lobbying for the then-president of Ukraine, directed at both European and American politicians, included efforts to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union – and ostensibly away from Moscow – by means of an economic cooperation agreement.
The lobbying effort was unsuccessful to say the least. But interestingly enough, Manafort was working on this failed project with Democrat Tony Podesta, the brother of John Podesta, the chair of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
Yes, Manafort’s lobbying for Ukraine’s Russia-backed former president Viktor Yanukovych is the stated reason why Mueller has taken the case in lieu of a normal federal prosecutor. But Manafort is not being charged with lobbying for Yanukovych’s government. That isn’t a crime.
Rather, Manafort’s upcoming trial in September surrounds the charge that he failed to register as a foreign agent while lobbying for Yanukovych. But violations of this law are rarely prosecuted, and loads of D.C. lobbyists routinely run afoul of this law without consequence.
In the last 50 years, there has been just one conviction for failing to file under the foreign agents registration law. That’s why the judge in the current case has accused Mueller’s team of only going after Manafort to get to President Trump.
Worse, the only way Mueller – tasked with investigating and prosecuting Russian interference in the 2016 election – can possibly say that the Manafort case relates to his investigation is if Manafort served as a conduit between the Trump campaign and the Russians. After years of investigation, this allegation remains unproven.
And this conspiracy theory is uniquely alleged by none other than Clinton campaign operatives Christopher Steele and Glenn Simpson.
There is also a simple explanation for why Manafort was brought into the Trump campaign. Leading up the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump needed someone who actually understood the Byzantine GOP convention rules.
Manafort, who worked on the Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Dole presidential campaigns, understood the rules. Once it emerged that Manafort had worked for Ukraine’s Russia-backed government, Trump dropped him like a hot potato.
In other words, the Manafort trial is a media spectacle, and a distraction. Mueller is only going after Manafort to get to President Trump. One wonders if Manafort would even have been charged with any crimes if he was never Trump’s campaign chairman.
But Paul Manafort has already been tried and convicted in the U.S. media, precisely because he worked on the Trump presidential campaign. That’s wrong.
Whether Republican or Democrat, we all need to stand up against the politicization of justice, or we will end up living in a banana republic. The rule of law should be blind, and it shouldn’t matter what campaign you worked on, or which candidate you supported.
Once the government (Mueller’s office in this case) starts targeting people for criminal prosecution because of their legitimate political activities all our freedoms are endangered. That puts us on a dangerous path that would change the very nature of our country.