Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and a veteran dweller of the D.C. "swamp" culture Trump allegedly detests, has been found guilty of eight out of 18 charges related to tax evasion and bank fraud. But the jury could not reach a conclusion on the remaining 10 and the judge has ordered a mistrial on those remaining charges.
In October 2017, Manafort became first person indicted by FBI Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller as part of a larger investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Manafort used more than 30 overseas bank accounts to manipulate more than $60 million in income, disguising it in order to keep from having to pay taxes.
Jurors reached agreement that Manafort was guilty of five charges of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud, and one charge of failing to report a foreign bank account.
Though Manafort has ties to Ukraine and Russian interests, none of the charges against him have anything to do with allegations that Russian nationals attempted to influence the election with secret social media buys or by hacking into voting systems or the Democratic National Committee's communications.
Instead, Manafort was accused of making millions off his ties to a Russia-friendly former Ukrianian president and of concealing his lobbying income from the United States government in order to evade taxes. Then, when the revenue stream dried up—the Ukrainian president was removed from office and fled to Russia—Manafort secured new bank loans by inflating his income and concealing his debts. He was later hit with new charges of obstruction (and had his bail revoked) for allegedly contacting and attempting to influence the testimony of two potential witnesses.
In this trial, he faced 18 counts of tax evasion and bank fraud. In a second trial, scheduled for September, he will face charges of money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent, and lying to the Justice Department about his Ukraine lobbying.
On a basic level, this is a familiar story about corruption and influence-peddling, one that proves the old trope that the cover-up is worse than the crime. Media coverage of the trial has focused largely on Manafort's extravagant spending habits—ostrich leather bomber jackets!—because it illustrates why he went to such great lengths to hide his income.
While there have been guilty pleas (George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn) of people in Trump's orbit, Manafort is the first to be prosecuted and found guilty by Mueller's team.
So what does the first actual conviction of somebody connected to Trump's team means for Trump and Mueller's broader investigation?
This is not about Trump. The behavior leading to Manafort's indictment preceded his role in Trump's campaign by several years. The FBI had previously interviewed and investigated Manafort, and Mueller essentially "inherited" this ongoing investigation when he took on the role of special counsel. After reporters revealed Manafort's secret work and payments from Ukraine's former president, Manafort left Trump's campaign. Trump has insisted repeatedly that there was "no collusion" between him and Russia, and that Manafort's crimes have nothing to do with the Trump campaign. This conviction does not undermine either claim.
While the timeline for Manafort's illegal behavior does allegedly extend up to—and extend beyond—the time he worked for Trump, the crimes he's been convicted of are not related to the presidential campaign. Thus, Manafort's conviction on these charges is not an obvious precursor to impeachment, or of any other sort of charges against Trump. Though some will certainly try to make the case that it should be; Manafort was, after all, part of the meeting in Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, at which Russians offered incriminating information on Hillary Clinton's campaign.
This is about Trump. A paradox here: If you're willing to set aside the issue of whether Manafort's relationship to a Ukrainian president proves any sort of "collusion with the Russians," it's easier to be clear-headed about how Manafort implicates Trump.
Manafort is one of many, many folks with troubled backgrounds and histories of bad behavior who have worked with Trump and influenced his policy leanings. Trump's campaign and administration hava featured a parade of incompetent and embarrassing figures, and a high turnover rate. While many on the left are willing to believe any sort of accusation against Trump and the people around him with only the slightest of evidence—or no evidence at all—this is not the case with Manafort.
Manafort was bad news. Those of us who care little about the highly politicized fight over "collusion," or who take a dim view of the absurd idea that Russian social media buys made people vote for Trump, should still recognize that Manafort representats a much more dangerous problem: Trump's terrible judgement. If we grant the president his innocence in any Russian meddling (and I actually do, based on current information), Manafort's participation in Trump's campaign will nevertheless taint the rest of his presidency. No amount of "Deep State" conspiracy complaints and screams of "Witch Hunt" can erase the reality that the former head of his campaign was financially beholden to a foreign power. Manafort's conviction is not grounds for impeaching Trump, but Trump's record of poor judgment in his personnel decisions might—and frankly should—cause some people to think twice about re-electing him.
Manafort is "The Swamp." Trump campaigned on a promise to drain "the swamp," meaning the culture of corruption, cronyism, and self-dealing that causes the federal government to grow ever larger for the fiscal benefit of a select few. Yet Manafort has always been a clear and obvious veteran swamp-dweller, using his connections to lobby for policies that benefit special interests and pocketing the money. During the trial, prosecutors say one bank chief executive officer kept approving loans to Manafort that they otherwise would have likely rejected because he was hoping for a role within the Trump administration.
Manafort could face decades in prison just for these charges, essentially the rest of his life.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS/Newscom