Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort appears for sentencing in this court sketch, on March 7 2019. Picture: REUTERS/BILL HENNESSY
Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort appears for sentencing in this court sketch, on March 7 2019. Picture: REUTERS/BILL HENNESSY

Alexandria — On Thursday, US President Donald Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort was sentenced by a US judge to less than four years in prison — far shy of federal sentencing guidelines — for financial crimes uncovered during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.

US District Judge TS Ellis imposed the 47-month sentence on Manafort during a hearing in Alexandria, Virginia, in which the veteran Republican political consultant asked for mercy but did not express remorse for his actions.

Ellis also ordered Manafort, who was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair due to gout, to pay a fine of $50,000 and restitution of just more than $24m.

Manafort was found guilty by a jury last August of five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. While prosecutors had not recommended a specific sentence, they had cited federal sentencing guidelines that called for 19.5 to 24 years in prison.

“Clearly the guidelines were way out of whack on this,” Ellis said.

The sentence was even less than defence lawyers had sought. They had asked Ellis to sentence Manafort to between 4.25 and 5.25 years in prison, writing in their sentencing memo that Mueller’s “attempt to vilify Mr Manafort as a lifelong and irredeemable felon is beyond the pale and grossly overstates the facts before this court”.

Some legal experts expressed surprise over the leniency of the sentence. “This is a tremendous defeat for the special counsel’s office,” said former federal prosecutor David Weinstein.

Ellis, appointed to the bench by former Republican president Ronald Reagan, called the sentence “sufficiently punitive”, but noted that Manafort’s time already served would be subtracted from the 47-month sentence. Manafort has been jailed since June 2018. The judge also noted during the hearing that Manafort “is not before the court for any allegations that he, or anyone at his direction, colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election”.

Conspiracy charges

Manafort faces sentencing in a separate case next Wednesday in Washington on two conspiracy charges to which he pleaded guilty last September. While he faces a statutory maximum of 10 years in the Washington case, US district judge Amy Berman Jackson potentially could stack that on top of the sentence imposed in the Virginia case, rather than allowing the sentences to run concurrently. Jackson was appointed by former Democratic president Barack Obama.

Trump, who has called Mueller’s investigation a politically motivated ‘witch hunt’, has not ruled out granting a presidential pardon to Manafort

Before the sentencing, Manafort thanked Ellis for conducting a fair trial. He expressed no remorse but talked about how the case had been difficult for him and his family. Manafort, who opted not to testify during his trial, told the court “to say I have been humiliated and ashamed would be a gross understatement”. He described his life as “professionally and financially in shambles”.

Manafort was convicted after prosecutors accused him of hiding millions of dollars he earned as a consultant for Ukraine’s former pro-Russia government from the US government. After pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster, prosecutors said, Manafort lied to banks to secure loans and maintain an opulent lifestyle with luxurious homes, designer suits and even a $15,000 ostrich-skin jacket.

The judge told Manafort: “I was surprised I did not hear you express regret for engaging in wrongful conduct.”

Manafort, with noticeably grayer hair than just months ago, was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair holding a cane, wearing a green prison jumpsuit emblazoned with the words “Alexandria inmate” on the back. It was a far cry from Manafort’s usual dapper appearance and stylish garb. He has been jailed leading up to his sentencing.

‘A lot of money’

Ellis faced criticism by some in the legal community for comments he made during the trial that were widely interpreted as biased against the prosecution. Ellis repeatedly interrupted prosecutors, told them to stop using the word “oligarch” to describe people associated with Manafort because it made him seem “despicable”, and objected to pictures of Manafort’s luxury items they planned to show jurors.

“It isn’t a crime to have a lot of money and be profligate in your spending,” Ellis told prosecutors during the trial.

His defence team argued for leniency because Manafort had agreed to co-operate with the prosecution after he was convicted — although Jackson ruled he breached that deal by repeatedly lying to prosecutors — and because his bid to secure a $5.5m bank loan on fraudulent premises did not actually succeed.

Prosecutor Greg Andres urged Ellis to impose a steep sentence. “This case must stand as a beacon to others that this conduct cannot be accepted,” Andres told the hearing on Thursday.

Manafort is the only one of the 34 people and three companies charged by Mueller to have gone to trial. Several others including former campaign aides Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen have pleaded guilty, while long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone has pleaded not guilty.

Trump, who has called Mueller’s investigation a politically motivated “witch hunt”, has not ruled out granting a presidential pardon to Manafort, saying in November: “I wouldn’t take it off the table.”

Jackson ruled on February 13 that Manafort had breached his agreement to co-operate with Mueller’s office by lying to prosecutors about three matters pertinent to the Russia probe including his interactions with a business partner they have said has ties to Russian intelligence.

Mueller is preparing to submit a report on his investigation into whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia and whether Trump has unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe to US attorney-general William Barr. Trump has denied collusion and obstruction and Russia has denied US intelligence findings that it interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to boost Trump.

The case capped a stunning downfall for Manafort, a prominent figure in Republican Party circles for decades, who also worked as a consultant to such international figures as former Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and Yanukovych.

Manafort worked for Trump’s campaign for five pivotal months in 2016 — that included the Republican National Convention, at which Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination — three of them as campaign chair.