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Donald Trump's 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort arrived at the federal courthouse in Virginia on Thursday afternoon facing the prospect of two decades in prison. He left court with just a fraction of that — 47 months, to be exact.
Manafort’s sentence by Judge T.S. Ellis represents a startling departure from the range — 19 to 24 years — recommended by the probation office following Manafort’s conviction last August for a range of financial fraud crimes.
At the hearing before a packed courtroom, Judge Ellis called the recommended guideline range “excessive” and remarked that Manafort — a man who built a vast fortune consulting for tyrants of various stripes around the world — had led an otherwise “blameless” life.
Ellis had been criticized for his handling of the trial by former prosecutors, who said his tendency to harangue the prosecution into speeding up the trial appeared to be tip-toeing perilously close to favoritism toward the defense.
Manafort himself spoke for about four minutes, during which he took responsibility for his actions and thanked the judge for a “fair trial,” according to a CNN journalist in the courtroom.
“I know it is my conduct that brought me here.” Manafort said, dressed in a green jumpsuit. “I ask you to be compassionate.”
Early in the trial, Ellis remarked that “even a blind person” could see that the real target of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors wasn’t Manafort but the political strategist’s former boss, Donald Trump.
The surprisingly short sentence follows a dizzying fall from grace for 69-year-old Manafort, whose once-opulent lifestyle involved splashing out millions on seven homes, manicured lawns, flashy suits, jackets made of rare animal skins, and high-end cars, according to evidence presented at his trial.
Manafort found himself at the center of Mueller’s Russia investigation after carrying on a running conversation during the 2016 campaign with a man allegedly tied to Russian intelligence, named Konstantin Kilimnik. Mueller’s team accused Manafort of lying about that connection — even after he pleaded guilty and pledged to truthfully cooperate with investigators.
Conversations between those two men went “very much to the heart” of the Russia investigation, Mueller’s top deputy, Andrew Weissmann, said in court last month.
Mueller’s team said Manafort lied about sharing campaign polling data with Kilimnik, who’d served for years as Manafort’s right-hand man and translator in Ukraine and whom the FBI determined has links to Russian operatives. Kilimnik, now thought to be living outside Moscow, has denied being a spy.
Manafort’s dispute with Mueller’s team over the truthfulness of his testimony about Kilimnik and other matters ultimately torpedoed his plea deal with investigators, and raised questions about what Manafort might have been trying to cover up with all those lies about an alleged Russian intelligence contact.
But it was the work that Manafort did years before he signed up to lead the Trump campaign that got him into so much legal trouble.
Manafort earned tens of millions as a political consultant for the former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. He was accused by Mueller of hiding more than $55 million in a network of secret offshore bank accounts to avoid paying taxes, and of later defrauding American banks with phony loan applications after he somehow managed to burn through his cash.
During his trial last August, prosecutors carted out evidence of Manafort’s high-rolling tastes, including photos of his wardrobe that featured a $15,000 ostrich jacket, a $9,500 ostrich vest, a $18,500 python coat and a $21,000 watch.
Prosecutors accused Manafort of failing to pay more than $6 million in taxes, and defrauding three financial institutions of more than $25 million.
Mueller’s prosecutors blasted Manafort in the days before his sentencing for failing to take responsibility for his crimes. “The defendant blames everyone from the Special Counsel’s Office to his Ukrainian clients for his own criminal choices,” they wrote. “In the end, Manafort acted for more than a decade as if he were above the law.”
Manafort’s lawyers argued in a memo to the court that their client was only caught up on his admitted crimes after Mueller failed to nail the Trump campaign for outright collusion with Russia.
“The Special Counsel’s attempt to vilify Mr. Manafort as a lifelong and irredeemable felon is beyond the pale and grossly overstates the facts before this Court,” his attorneys argued, accusing Mueller of trying to “impugn his character in a manner that this country has not experienced in decades.”
In the end, Judge Ellis, who was nominated by former President Ronald Reagan, agreed with Manafort’s lawyers that the sentencing guidelines in Manafort’s case were too tough.
Manafort still faces sentencing next week in another case in Washington D.C., where he pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy. He faces a maximum 10 years in his D.C. case, and the judge must decide whether the two sentences should be served at the same time, or back-to-back.
Cover: Jason Maloni, left, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's spokesman, left, walks with Paul Manafort, center, as they leave the Alexandria Federal Courthouse after an arraignment hearing on his Eastern District of Virginia charges, in Alexandria, Va., Thursday, March 8, 2018. Behind Manafort protester Bill Christeson holds up a sign that says "traitor." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)