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Paul Manafort: Eulogy for a Straw Man

Paul Manafort leaving the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, D.C. after after being indicted in 2017. By Phil Pasquini/Shutterstock

No one weeps for Paul Manafort. The irony is that his sad but relatively uneventful life as a parasite of a corrupt political system would not have mattered a jot if special counsel Robert Mueller hadn’t thought that he could bring down the president. That Trump is still standing means we need to prepare for Act II, what happens post-Mueller.

But first the eulogy. Manafort became the subject of an FBI investigation in 2014, centered on the sleazy consulting work he did for Ukraine’s former ruling party. The surveillance was discontinued that same year and the FBI dropped the matter for lack of evidence. Then Manafort’s less-than-three-month tenure as Trump’s campaign chairman provided the good-enough-for-government-work hook when the FBI went fishing for ties between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives.

In the end, Mueller was only able to convict Manafort on eight counts (he failed on 10 others) involving false income taxes, failing to report foreign bank accounts, and bank fraud, all revolving around Manafort’s lobbying and all largely prior to his work for Trump. The goal of repurposing the old surveillance data, the stuff that was literally not worth pursuing in 2014, was to pressure Manafort into somehow tying Trump into the collusion narrative. If Manafort hadn’t joined the Trump campaign, he would almost certainly be a free man today.

No matter. The Mueller ploy came up dry. Oh there was all sorts of noise—Manafort showed campaign polling data to someone foreign (not a crime) and some people he knew knew some of the people who knew Putin (also not a crime). It was all as sordid as you want it to be, just not very useful if you have to go to court and actually prove stuff to someone other than Rachel Maddow. In sentencing Manafort, the judge noted specifically that there was nothing “to do with colluding with the Russian government.”

To drive home the non-point, Manafort was sentenced to only 47 months, with credit for nine months already served, which means with parole, maybe two years and change. It was well below even the minimum sentencing recommendations (about half of all federal sentences are) and a far cry from the “rest of his life” the media had been braying for. The Daily Beast took it personally, saying the light sentence “felt like a slap in the face for many watching the Russia probe.” Rick Wilson tried to save face for his fellow liberals, expressing joy at seeing Manafort’s physical deterioration while in custody. Summing up America 2019, a common theme across Twitter was to hope that Manafort, now age 69, dies in prison.

Though you would be forgiven for thinking that this was blood sport, Manafort’s crimes were just white-collar tax stuff that at worst forms the basis of one of those lurid back page “how the mighty have fallen” stories. There is still another round of sentencing to go on Wednesday, this time with a supposedly vindictive judge (Google “concurrent sentences” before popping the champagne). CNN tells us that the superheroes of the Southern District of New York will some day prosecute Manafort separately (Google “double jeopardy” and put the bubbly back on the shelf) so he can’t be pardoned by Trump.

Of course, any pardon will come either at the very end of Trump’s only term or during his second term. Down the road, no newly elected Democratic president is going to start their administration off seeking revenge on the previous guys; it’ll be all about healing and coming together. Obama excused torture, never mind tax crimes. Trump could also just leave Manafort to rot; he isn’t very important.

Bottom line, history books 10 years from now will read: “Paul Manafort’s lavish lifestyle, funded by corruption, came to an end in prison. He had nothing to do with Russiagate. He was just standing too close to Trump when he got caught.” So think of him (and maybe Papadopoulos, Flynn, and Gates) as the weak curtain closer to Act I. Up next is Michael Cohen, the hoped for peppy tune that brings the audience back for Act II.

It is increasingly clear that Mueller is unlikely to unveil a bombshell, even as his long overdue freshman term paper is now dragging into junior year (no hurry; a nation is only waiting to learn whether its president is a Russian agent or not). Russiagate, in reality always more a hashtag than a caper, has devolved into a placeholder, a way to prep the public for the new plan, two years of Benghazi-like hearings looking for a crime.

Scratch that—the Benghazi hearings will look even-handed and dull compared to what’s to come. This is going to be two years of bread and circuses, with Elijah Cummings playing the calm but angry Morgan Freeman role (one kept waiting to hear him say “Now easy, young blood” to one of his freshman representatives at the Cohen hearing) while AOC and her posse own, scold, hot-take, slay, tear down, slam, and crush for the cameras. Insurance fraud! Real estate devaluation! A Trump golf course she has to drive past every day! Taxes! It’s all a lot of capitalism and AOC knows from college that’s bad, right? At least until it comes up empty in the harsh light of sobriety. A signed check with no tie to any crime but a convict’s word is the smoking gun of impeachment? The gold standard on these things is a blue dress, kids.

Ever watch Law & Order? Most episodes begin with a body on the ground. Watergate started with a break-in at Democratic national headquarters by people revealed to have direct ties to the Republicans. All things Trump began with the Left’s collective disbelief that he won the election fairly. Everything since then—everything—has been a search for a crime to reverse November 2016.

The media is chock-a-block with articles, which, while they take for granted that the House will soon begin impeachment proceedings, offer no clear info on exactly what the grounds for that impeachment might be. Corruption is popular though the specifics are vague. Or maybe obstruction, a process crime like Mueller’s well-worn perjury traps created out of the ashes of an investigation of no substance.

It really doesn’t matter. Impeachment is the goal: someone will just have to find a reason because Trump must be guilty. The problem is that this is all an investigation in search of a crime. That sounded better three years ago when it began but today it’s getting thin. Watching the pivot from Russiagate to generic corruption as the main driver just exposes how empty the process is. What was supposed to be the endgame, Mueller’s work, is now being characterized as only the end of the beginning.

NBC is more straightforward in outlining the “reasons” for impeachment than most: “The lines of investigation run from Trump’s campaign and White House operations all the way to his tax records and business dealings, and some Democrats are convinced they will ultimately be able to use their findings to tell the story of a president who has committed offenses for which he should be removed from office.”

That seems to be the game plan for the next two years. What remains are two big questions. Will it work? And will it end?

Assuming something is cobbled together worth opening impeachment hearings over, the Republican majority in the Senate is still unlikely to convict. Trump will run for reelection in 2020. Will public opinion, empathy, following impeachment proceedings, help him as it did Bill Clinton? How many voters will see through this politicization of the constitutional process? How many Democrats who wanted real progress on health care and immigration will see this all as just a waste of time, their midterm votes squandered on a circus?

Then the last question: will this all end in 2020? Because if the endless investigation tactic seems to work this time around, you can bet that when the next Democrat takes the White House, she will wake up the day after her inauguration to find a special prosecutor and congressional hearings waiting. Ten years of taxes? How about we start with 20 and see where that goes? Now, Madam President, about this handwritten note in your junior high school yearbook…

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from federal employment and Twitter.

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