Beg Your Pardon

The Trump pardons are a travesty of justice and an affront to the rule of law.

On June 15, 2018—a banner day for Justice For All—Paul Manafort was sent to jail.

“You have abused the trust placed in you six months ago,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said to the former chair of the Trump campaign, who had filled the time awaiting trial for conspiracy and money-laundering charges by jerking around federal prosecutors. “The government motion will be granted, and the defendant will be detained.”

In that moment, the doors of perception were cleansed. Manafort was not the respectable Republican old hand the press had presented him as during the campaign. He was a full-on mercenary, prostituting himself to the world’s worst dictators and despots, who, out of necessity, paid more. And he was a master of his dark arts.

As a play opens in Provincetown to work out the kinks before moving to Broadway, so Manafort honed the political dirty tricks in Ukraine that he later brought stateside. In Kiev, the role of Donald John Trump was played by Viktor Yanukovych, another portly, venal crook in league with Vladimir Putin, who boosted billions from that country’s treasury, whisking a significant percentage of Ukraine’s GDP offshore. What money he didn’t steal he spent, lavishly, on himself, souping up the Soviet-era Mezhyhirya Residence into the sort of palatial crib that even Louis Quatorze would call de trop. Meanwhile, ordinary Ukrainians couldn’t get basic health services because of chronic underfunding. But Paul Manafort didn’t give a Roger Stone’s ass about the travails of ordinary Ukrainians. He merrily partook of his cut of the loot.

With Yanukovych and Trump, Manafort shares a taste for the tacky and ostentatious, pouring his ill-gained Ukrainian millions into things like oriental rugs and ostrich-skin jackets. This is the sort of soulless monster who would pimp out his grandmother to upgrade from economy to first class. (Pimping out his relations is not hyperbole, if what his daughters allege in their text messages is to be believed.)

And this abomination was the chair of the Trump campaign from May through August, 2016—prime Treason Season. For his expert services, Manafort famously worked pro bono (which should have been a tell). During those critical months, and after leaving the campaign in an official capacity, he worked with a close associate from his Kiev days, Konstanin Kilimnik, a Russian intelligence officer who specializes in election fuckery. He gave Kilimnik polling data that he got from the RNC via the Trump campaign; that data was passed along to the Kremlin, which used it to help Trump win the election.

None of that is in dispute. It is the conclusion of the Intelligence Community, the Mueller team, and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia had worked like sixty to influence the election for the benefit of Donald John Trump (Manafort’s client) and Mike Pence (Manafort’s pick for running mate). Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton and Roy Blunt and John Cornyn signed off on this, ffs.

In short, Paul Manafort is an irredeemable piece of shit. And on June 15, 2018, that irredeemable piece of shit was sent to the hoosegow by Judge Berman Jackson. He was reportedly held in a detention center in Alexandria, Virginia for the trial. This was not exactly breaking rocks in the hot sun, as The Guardian reported:

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former presidential campaign chairman, was recorded saying he is being treated “like a VIP” in jail despite complaining publicly about the conditions, prosecutors said on Wednesday.

Manafort also allegedly remarked that he enjoyed access to “all my files like I would at home” while claiming to a judge that his access to records was limited….

The filing said that Manafort had made more than 300 phone calls in the last three weeks and even “developed a workaround” to outsmart a ban on inmates sending or receiving emails at Northern Neck regional jail in Warsaw, Virginia….

The Mueller team’s court filing said Manafort was being detained in a “living unit” that was bigger than that given to other inmates. He has his own bathroom and shower, a private telephone and laptop, and is not required to wear a prison uniform, the prosecutors said. He also has use of a separate workspace.

“Manafort has revealed on the monitored phone calls that in order to exchange emails, he reads and composes emails on a second laptop that is shuttled in and out of the facility by his team,” the prosecutors said. “When the team takes the laptop from the jail, it reconnects to the internet and Manafort’s emails are transmitted.”

On April 23, 2019, after sentencing, Manafort was moved to the United States Penitentiary Canaan in Waymart, Pennsylvania, just outside of Scranton (insert Dunder Mifflin joke here). Later, he was moved to a different federal prison, also in the Keystone State. While in the pokey, he communicated with Rudy Giuliani about Ukraine—so being in jail neither deterred nor prevented further crime. Paul Manafort may as well have been Paul Cicero, slicing garlic with a razorblade, still running the show from inside.

On May 13, 2020, as covid-19 ravaged the country, Manafort was released to home confinement, even though he did not meet the criteria for such release—not being a major health risk and not being more than halfway done with his sentence. He had served just under two full years in prison: 698 days, to be exact.

And then, on December 28, 2020, Trump spat in the face of the rule of law, granting Manafort a full and unconditional pardon. “As a result of blatant prosecutorial overreach,” the White House Press Secretary lied, “Mr. Manafort has endured years of unfair treatment and is one of the most prominent victims of what has been revealed to be perhaps the greatest witch hunt in American history.” Whereupon Paulie Ostrich Coat kissed the ring:

Of course he’s grateful. Not only did he get out of prison, the slippery sleazebag got to keep some of the properties the government was in the process of seizing, as terms of his conviction. The summer home in the Hamptons. The townhouse in Brooklyn. The apartment in Lower Manhattan. Trump took what by rights belongs to us, to We the People, and gave it to his old buddy, the perfidious thief. That’s a Yanukovych move.

In any other society, at any other moment in history, Manafort would have been executed for what he did. Now, after serving less than two years in the clink, he’s a free man, chilling in his house in the Hamptons. How does that not make one’s blood boil?

Of all the myriad ways that Trump has undermined the rule of law—installing wretched judges, corroding the venerable DOJ, throwing acid on the face of justice—his pardons are the most egregious. It is impossible to read that pardon list and not be apoplectic. Yes, there are a handful of deserving beneficiaries sprinkled in, depending on how you feel about Lil Wayne’s gold-plated Glock, but for the most part, this is the 1927 Yankees of bad guys, a Legion of Doom. Most of the pardons were given to so-called “white-collar” criminals: fraudsters, tax cheats, swindlers, scammers, con men—men like Trump, men who knew Trump. As Jennifer Taub explains in Big Dirty Money, white-collar crime is rarely prosecuted as it is. To release these people, and ignore countless others rotting away for lesser crimes, is evil.

Any one conviction represents countless hours of work by law enforcement and prosecutors, by defense attorneys and DAs, by judges and juries, all in the service of justice for the victims and society in general—and all of that labor goes up in smoke, poof, with one Sharpied signature. This is like the part in Ghostbusters where Peck shuts down the electric grid and all the poltergeists fly away.

Too, the manner in which the pardons were made smacks of cronyism and graft. Elliott Broidy, who was a big Republican fundraiser and a deputy finance chair of the RNC—as well as a major donor to Trump’s campaign and his inauguration—pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws in the 1MDB/Jho Low scandal. Trump pardoned him. But he didn’t pardon Nickie Lum Davis, who had pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting Broidy’s crimes—despite Lum Davis’ cooperation with the government. Whatever your feelings about Elliott Broidy, pardoning him and not his accomplice makes zero sense. Trump didn’t even bother to hide the favoritism.

Paul Erickson, the longtime Republican operative, is best known as the cuckolded boyfriend of self-confessed Russian spy Maria Butina. Thus there is a perception that his indictment was somehow related to Trump/Russia. This is not so. Erickson is a con man, who swindled investors—some of them his old friends—out of their money. He, too, was granted a pardon—because of his perceived involvement with “the Russia hoax.” Basically, Trump released a wannabe Madoff because he was dating a notorious Russian operative.

But the most egregious names on the pardon list belong to Manafort, Roger Stone, Mike Flynn, and Steve Bannon—all Trump campaign insiders, all bosom friends of the former guy, and all extremely dangerous. Manafort, we’ve already discussed. Stone and Flynn were almost certainly involved with the January 6 insurrection, which they were free to participate in because they were not in prison, where they belonged. And Bannon, who casually demanded Dr. Fauci’s head on a pike among a thousand other horrors, might be the most dangerous of the bunch. That Q-happy quartet is a veritable Mount Rushmore of villainy. The world is less safe because they are not behind bars. People have died because of what they’ve already done; more people will die because they roam free.

Worst of all, the pardons to that foursome in particular fuel the narrative that there is no rule of law in America, that the bad guys always get away with it, provided they are rich or connected. As the ultimate aim of Russian disinformation is to obliterate the very notion of objective truth, unconditional pardons for Manafort, Stone, Flynn, and Bannon annihilate the concept of impartial justice. It is gaslighting ne plus ultra.

Who benefits when the rule of law breaks down like this? Mafias. Whether in Naples or Sicily, Moscow or Brighton Beach, mafias are created because of negligent governance by local officials. The original crime families evolved to settle local disputes when the actual government did not, to offer protection when the actual police could not, to establish codes of conduct when no such codes were being enforced.

“I believe in America,” the undertaker says to Don Corleone in the opening scene of The Godfather. But the American legal system did not work for him in his hour of need, when his daughter was brutally beaten and raped:

I went to the police like a good American. These two boys were arrested and brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison, and suspended the sentence. Suspended sentence! They went free that very day. I stood in the courtroom like a fool, and those bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, for Justice, we must go to the Godfather.

I, too, believe in America. I believe in the American justice system. I believe in Merrick Garland. But these outrageous pardons erode that belief, just as the perception that Trump and his cronies will get away with their crime erodes that belief. We are all the undertaker now, and our daughter who was beaten and violated is democracy itself.

Seven hundred days in the hoosegow is not justice; it’s a joke. Time to make it right.

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Photo credit: Manafort’s mug shot, Alexandria, Va. sheriff’s department.