Four Lessons From the Manafort Sentencing

This is bad news for Trump, and good news for the system.

Paul Manafort
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Earlier today, Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager for Donald Trump, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison by Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C. This sentence will run concurrently with the 47-month sentence that Manafort received from Judge T. S. Ellis III in Alexandria, Virginia, last week. Moments after Manafort was sentenced, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. unsealed a 16-count indictment against the man for mortgage fraud, alleging that he falsely inflated the value of certain properties he owned in New York to secure larger mortgage loans. It’s been a busy day in the court system, and not an especially good day for Manafort.

But what are we, as citizens, to take away from today’s events? Here are a few thoughts:

First, and most obviously, the criminal-justice system seems to have worked. Last week, many commentators were decrying the perceived lenity of Ellis’s sentence. Today Jackson offered a systemic correction. Given Manafort’s age and the severity of his crimes, seven and a half years seems about right. It’s actually on the high end for similar offenses. And given his age, Manafort may well die in jail, which cannot be a happy prospect for him.

Second, and more important for the American public, the New York authorities have made clear that they are willing to serve as a pardon insurance policy for America. In recent months, much has been made of the possibility that Trump will issue pardons to his friends and relatives as a way of insulating his conduct from criminal scrutiny. Were he to do so, the only legitimate federal response would be to consider that conduct as a potential ground for impeachment—a highly problematic endeavor, to be sure. But the president’s pardon power runs only as far as federal law goes. It does not, and cannot, reach allegations of state criminal conduct. Thus, even were Trump to issue a full and complete pardon to Manafort for all the crimes he has committed, that move would not excuse Manafort from answering the New York State charges.

A caveat: There might be issues about the provability of these state-level crimes, and there is even a possibility that unique New York law might give Manafort a double-jeopardy claim to avoid prosecution. But overall, the New York indictment is a reminder that the states (all 50 of them) have a function in the criminal drama that is playing out on the public stage. And Vance just auditioned for a starring role.

Third, the New York indictment is not good news for Trump, personally. The Manhattan prosecutor has brought charges of fraud against Manafort for falsely inflating the value of certain real-estate properties he owned for mortgage purposes. Those allegations find a strong echo in the recent congressional testimony of the former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who said the president engaged in the exact same course of conduct in his personal capacity—inflating real-estate values to increase his net worth when it suited him, and then deflating those same values to avoid taxation. The parallelism cannot have been accidental, and might indicate that New York authorities are examining how the president conducted his real-estate business with a fine-tooth comb. Trump may yet come to regret having won the election for the unwanted scrutiny it has brought him.

And finally, as bad as this news is for Trump, it is likely even worse news for the Trump Organization—now also possibly in Vance’s crosshairs for real-estate shenanigans. An individual’s criminal liability often turns, in the end, on his intent, or what lawyers call his mens rea. And in a big organization, it is sometimes plausible that top-level leadership was unaware of activities occurring within the company. Or, more accurately, it is often the case that prosecutors cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a particular individual knew what was happening. In the long run, that might be the case with Trump and his empire.

But what is true for an individual is generally not true for an organization. The organization’s intent is the sum of the knowledge of all its employees and managers. And thus, for an institution such as the Trump Organization, the question is not so much “Who knew what?” as “Did someone in the company know something?”

This was not a good day for Manafort. In the larger context of America’s interest in the rule of law, it may well be remembered as an excellent one.