Paul Manafort has not behaved in the way you would expect a defendant to act in a federal case while facing the possibility of spending the final decades of his life in prison.
Despite the reams of evidence against him, he continued to work to obstruct justice after he was indicted, only adding more charges to the list. He initially pushed to have two trials, an inadvisable move on its own, and he was promptly found guilty before the first judge. Before heading into his second trial, he agreed to plead guilty and become a cooperator with Special Counsel Robert Mueller — only to get caught lying to the investigators, further worsening his sentence.
While it might be easy to conclude that Manafort is simply reckless and unintelligent, there’s a more plausible explanation for his behavior: He’s hoping to get a pardon from President Donald Trump.
The sentencing memo filed by his lawyers Monday night only added more evidence that the former campaign manager thinks his best play is not to act like a traditional defendant but to instead present himself as a loyal devotee to the commander in chief.
As Vox reporter Andrew Prokop noted, Manafort’s sentencing memo “reads as if it’s written for Fox News and Trump.” He also pointed out that it includes a major lie. Manafort’s lawyers claim that the federal raid on their defendant’s property had nothing to do with evidence of collusion with Russia. But in fact, it did: The warrant mentioned the famous Trump Tower meeting in 2016 with a Russian lawyer, Manafort’s contacts with an oligarch close to Putin and his son, and records related to communications with foreign individuals and governments.
Right from the start, the memo tried to downplay Manafort’s crimes, which Mueller’s team has called “brazen.” It called his criminal violations “garden-variety” — not far from claims Donald Trump Jr. made Monday morning to minimize the Russia investigation.
In Mueller’s view, Manaforts crimes went to “the heart of the criminal justice system.” He said the way they were committed showed “no warranted mitigating factors.”
And yet Manafort’s lawyers also repeatedly cited Judge T.S. Ellis, who was at times critical of Mueller’s team and speculated that prosecutors were using the indictment to pressure the former campaign manager.
Mueller had claimed that Manafort’s actions showed he had no remorse for his crimes. And Manafort’s sentencing memo seems to show the same thing — his lawyers went out of their way to minimize his crimes, not to plead for sympathy or demonstrate how he has learned from his errors. He’s telling a story about prosecutors run amok, not a guilty man caught and seeking redemption. From what we have seen of Judge Amy Berman Jackson so far in this trial, there’s no reason to think she will be at all impressed with these arguments — in fact, it might make her more likely to give a harsher sentence.
With that in mind, it seems clear Jackson is not the real audience of the memo. Trump is, and so is everyone else looking for ammunition against Mueller. Manafort’s team is trying to cast his prosecution so that it fits neatly into Trump’s “witch hunt” narrative, which might be just what the president needs to justify a pardon.
And this isn’t just wild speculation — Mueller’s prosecutors have made clear they think Manafort is trying to get Trump to nullify the charges.
But it’s not clear it will work. Recent reporting found the state prosecutors in New York are preparing a set of charges against Manafort in the case Trump does issue a pardon. Since Trump can only pardon federal charges, Manafort would have no one to protect him from the state of New York.