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Blameless

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Paul Manafort received a sentence far below what the federal sentencing guidelines would ordinarily recommend. Derision of this light sentence produced a liberal backlash on Twitter, and I agree with most of the individual points as far as they go:

  • 47 months is, in the abstract, a fair punishment for what Manafort pleaded to, indeed perhaps a little on the harsh side.
  • That the guidelines mandated not just a greater punishment but a far greater punishment is an excellent example of how the United States has ridiculously overlong sentences for almost every offense (although of course the enforcement of white collar crimes is often very spotty.)
  • Ellis is right, as far as it goes, the having to spend upwards of four years in a federal prison is really, really horrible, and to describe the sentence as if it’s no big deal is silly.

Having said that, in the context of the actually existing American criminal justice system this is a sentencing decision eminently worthy of criticism, not least because of the clear bias against the state’s case in general and the Mueller investigation specifically Ellis showed throughout the case. Bad judges like this are why wide judicial discretion is a very mixed bag. And of course the expectation that the harsh paper sentences generally won’t be applied to well-connected people who can afford good lawyers is hardly incidental to this mass incarceration thing of ours.

But what really infuriates me, more than the sentence, are Ellis’s justifications for giving it:

The judge noted that he must consider the entirety of Manafort’s life when issuing a sentence, saying letters show Manafort has been “a good friend” and a “generous person” but that that “can’t erase the criminal activity.” Manafort’s tax crimes, the judge said, were “a theft of money from everyone who pays taxes.”

Ellis expressed some sympathy for the GOP consultant, who had worked on the presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, becoming a Washington insider and high-flying consultant for hire.

“He’s lived an otherwise blameless life,” Ellis said. The judged noted Manafort has no past criminal history and “earned the admiration of a number of people” who wrote letters to the court.

You have got to be shitting me. The idea that Manafort deserves a big break because he’s a person of such Great Character is absolutely ludicrous:

In an otherwise blameless life, Paul Manafort lobbied on behalf of the tobacco industry and wangled millions in tax breaks for corporations.

In an otherwise blameless life, he helped the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos bolster his image in Washington after he assassinated his primary political opponent.

In an otherwise blameless life, he worked to keep arms flowing to the Angolan generalissimo Jonas Savimbi, a monstrous leader bankrolled by the apartheid government in South Africa. While Manafort helped portray his client as an anti-communist “freedom fighter,” Savimbi’s army planted millions of landmines in peasant fields, resulting in 15,000 amputees.

In an otherwise blameless life, Manafort was kicked out of the lobbying firm he co-founded, accused of inflating his expenses and cutting his partners out of deals.

In an otherwise blameless life, he spent a decade as the chief political adviser to a clique of former gangsters in Ukraine. This clique hoped to capture control of the state, so that it could enrich itself with government contracts and privatization agreements. This was a group closely allied with the Kremlin, and Manafort masterminded its rise to power—thereby enabling Ukraine’s slide into Vladimir Putin’s orbit.

[some examples omitted — Manafort is a really horrible person!]

In an otherwise blameless life, he disguised his income as loans, so that he could bamboozle banks into lending him money.

In an otherwise blameless life, he attempted to phone a potential witness in his trial, so that they could align their stories.

In an otherwise blameless life, he systematically lied to Robert Mueller’s prosecutors, after he promised them his full cooperation.

And Foer doesn’t even mention Manafort completely destroying his wife’s life by forcing her to engage in a bunch of quasi-consensual group sex while she was recovering from brain damage!

Needless to say, the odds that Ellis would say that a poor African-American man or a Democratic operative who had done a fraction of the horrible shit Manafort has spent his live doing had led an otherwise “blameless life” and deserved a particularly lenient sentence a roughly a trillion to one. Which is why Ellis deserves all of the criticism he’s getting and worse.

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