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In the Manafort Case, the System Worked

The conviction of Trump’s former campaign chair is a win for the rule of law

Agosto 21, 2018

The conviction of Paul Manafort on federal tax fraud and bank fraud charges is not something President Donald Trump can easily dismiss with a nasty tweet or a stinging diatribe on the campaign trail. It wasn’t Special Counsel Robert Mueller who put Trump’s former campaign chairman on the hook for hard time in a federal prison. It wasn’t James Comey, either, or Jeff Sessions or Rod Rosenstein or Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi. It was instead a jury of six women and six men, all anonymous, who willingly gave up their time and sustained their effort over weeks to bring a measure of justice to the constellation of rogues who surround the most roguish president in our history.

That the Manafort verdict is mixed — convictions on eight counts, a deadlock on 10 others — will surely give succor to the president’s allies in and out of government. They’ll say in the coming hours and days that the counts on which jurors hung each represent defeats for the federal prosecutors who brought the case. That’s nonsense. Jurors unanimously reached guilty verdicts, after a trial in which the judge bent over backward to help defense attorneys, and reached not a single acquittal on any of the charges. Only in Trumpland, where up is down and black is white, does any of that represent a win for the defense.  

The Manafort verdict came within minutes of the news that Michael Cohen, Trump’s one-time lawyer and fixer, has pleaded guilty to eight counts of tax fraud and other crimes and that he directly implicated the president in campaign-finance violations. Trump and his enablers may be able to say that they cannot be held responsible for the criminal conduct of Manafort that took place years before the election (“doesn’t involve me,” Trump said at a news conference after the verdict, calling Manafort “a good man”). But there is no distancing the president from Cohen and those hush-money payments, which means we essentially have an aider-and-abettor-in-chief.

It’s too early to say whether Trump will turn his online bile toward Cohen, whose loyalty he still needs, or to Manafort’s jurors — and even to acknowledge this uncertainty is unprecedented. The idea that a sitting president would blast a duly empaneled federal jury for a conviction at the end of a closely contested criminal trial would have been unthinkable, until Trump, and yet now it seems a decent bet. Why wouldn’t Trump impugn the integrity of these jurors, these ordinary citizens, with the same zest with which he has insulted the family of an honored war veteran, or a disabled reporter, or countless other patriotic or just plain earnest citizens whose views he does not share?

But whether Trump tweets or not about this verdict, and no matter what wicked spin he tries to put on this result, Manafort’s conviction on eight counts is a victory for the rule of law in an age of rampant administration lawlessness. It is a victory for norms in a world in which vital ones are being swept away day by day. It is a victory for facts, and the truth, or at least so much of it as jurors were allowed to hear under the federal rules of evidence. It is a victory for those who believe that there is still right and wrong in the administration of justice and for those who still believe that crime doesn’t pay, or at least that it shouldn’t pay.

The Manafort verdict also is a victory for the Justice Department, and federal prosecutors, and the FBI, and all those working in federal law enforcement who pushed through the threats and disparagement and obstruction coming from the White House. It was not a clean sweep but complicated financial cases like this rarely are. And so what? Manafort still is going to prison, in all likelihood for many years, and that’s what matters. It also is a victory of sorts for U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis, III, who surely has had better stretches of judging but who, in the end, delivered unto us a verdict that appellate judges will struggle to reverse, even if they want to.

Paul Manafort stands guilty today not because of some grand conspiracy, or deep-state confederacy, or unconscionable anti-Trump bias. He stands guilty today because he’s a crook and because his jurors after days of deliberations became convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he is a crook. Sure, there will be an appeal, and Manafort, I suppose, can hope for a different outcome if and when his other federal criminal trial takes place in Washington, D.C. But neither that appeal nor the results of that other trial can wipe away what this jury has just done. It’s now an indelible part of the history of this president, this administration, and the infernal 2016 campaign: Yet another one of the president’s men is a criminal. 

Sure, President Trump can pardon Paul Manafort. He could do it today if he wanted to. Or tomorrow. Or after Manafort is sentenced. And there is virtually nothing anyone could do about it. But Trump wouldn’t be pardoning an innocent man. He wouldn’t be pardoning a victim of a wrongful conviction, or of police misconduct, or of an overzealous prosecutor who manipulated evidence. America will know, even if this administration never will acknowledge it, that Trump is pardoning a guilty man, a man who with his pardon will never face the true consequences of his actions and a man, to use the parlance of this administration, who never took responsibility for his misconduct.

For now, with this president, and this administration, with this Congress, this will have to be good enough. For one day, a group of ordinary Americans, called into service to obey the rule of law, ripped from their lives and forced to sit in a jury box for weeks, did the right thing. They did what their consciences told them to do. For one day, they are the heroes of a story the end of which remains uncertain. Bring on the Trump tweets. Let him bellow and blow. For one day, the system worked. It bent but did not break. It was bullied but not sullied. And for that we should be thankful.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Shutterstock.com)