Manafort sought judicial compassion. On Thursday, he got it.
Judge T.S. Ellis III on Thursday gave Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, a notably light prison sentence of less than four years, confounding experts and those who practice regularly in the federal courts.
Mr. Manafort, convicted last summer on charges of tax evasion, bank fraud and related criminality uncovered by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, faced 19 to 24 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
The leniency shown by Judge Ellis, of the Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., toward Mr. Manafort carries the whiff of miscarriage of justice, especially given how the criminal justice system routinely treats people without Mr. Manafort’s wealth, influence or skin color.
.. But if the failed war on drugs and the era of mass incarceration have taught us anything, it is that there are two tracks of justice: one for those who can afford expensive defense counsel and who can move heaven and earth to receive mercy, and one for everyone else. People like Mr. Manafort, when caught cheating taxpayers of millions of dollars, receive discretion and kid-glove treatment, while drug dealers and less sophisticated defendants — in Judge Ellis’s courtroom and elsewhere — are subject to draconian mandatory minimum sentences.
.. During a revealing moment early in Thursday’s hearing, Judge Ellis said Mr. Manafort was “not before this court for anything having to do with collusion with the Russian government to influence this election.” This is true. But collusion, as Judge Ellis surely knows, is not a federal crime, and it is not mentioned in the appointment order that gave Mr. Mueller his mandate in May 2017. Rather, it’s a term of art that Mr. Trump and his defenders have abused to misdirect the public about the true nature of the special counsel investigation.
.. “Manafort’s criminal conduct was serious, longstanding, and bold,” Mr. Mueller’s team told Judge Ellis in a sentencing submission filed last month. “He failed to pay taxes in five successive years involving more than $16 million in unreported income — and failed to identify his overseas accounts in those same returns — resulting in more than $6 million in unpaid taxes.”
To federal prosecutors, Mr. Manafort “benefited from the protections and privileges of the law and the services of his government, while cheating it and his fellow citizens.”.. “Manafort’s effort to shift the blame to others — as he did at trial — is not consistent with acceptance of responsibility or a mitigating factor,” prosecutors wrote.
Amid the furor, including from former judges, over Judge Ellis’s apparent lack of impartiality during the Manafort trial last year, I was among those who gave him the benefit of the doubt. Judges often play hardball with prosecutors and defense lawyers, my thinking went, and Judge Ellis had already recognized, in declining to toss out Mr. Mueller’s indictment against Mr. Manafort ahead of trial, that the charges “clearly arise out of the special counsel’s investigation into thepayments defendant allegedly received from Russian-backed leaders and pro-Russian political officials.”
Mr. Manafort has shown no contrition for his misdeeds, or for his recalcitrance since the special counsel first charged him. And Judge Ellis ignored all that, doing a disservice to justice.
The judge’s mercy may be the closest Mr. Manafort will get to a presidential pardon. But that may not keep him from begging for one. Mr. Trump, who has praised Mr. Manafort as a “brave man” and lamented that his own Justice Department had charged Mr. Manafort with tax crimes that were only peripheral to the Russia investigation, has refused to rule it out.
America produced a corrupt president. We can do better.
.. Elijah Cummings, the Oversight Committee chairman, pined for a return to a pre-Trump America. “We have got to get back to normal,” he said.
But Normal America produced Donald Trump, fueled his cult of personality and created the conditions for him to rise to the height of political power. If anything, Michael Cohen’s testimony was a devastating indictment of decisions that Normal America made over the past few decades that produced President Trump in 2016.
Most of the charges — proven or alleged — against those caught up in the Mueller investigation are not obviously related to treasonous collusion with Moscow. It’s proof, the president’s blinkered backers bray, that the whole inquiry is a waste of time.
Read another way, that set of facts shows how decades of declining prosecutions of white-collar crimes may have allowed Paul Manafort, a man guilty of tax evasion and bank fraud, to lead a presidential campaign. If the number of white-collar crimes prosecuted by the Justice Department had not fallen more than 40 percent in the past 20 years, perhaps Mr. Cohen, who committed tax fraud and bank fraud, might not have ascended to become deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, a post he held until June 2018.
Then there’s the president himself, Exhibit A of what happens when a country spends decades treating crimes by the poor as felonies and crimes by the powerful as misdemeanors.
At the start of Mr. Trump’s career, he and his father were charged with discriminating against African-Americans in their apartment rentals. Father and son settled with the government and admitted no wrongdoing.
Later in life, Mr. Trump’s casino was charged with money laundering and got off with a fine. Just after Mr. Trump was elected, his cardboard castle of a university that bore his name settled a class-action lawsuit brought by from former students.
It took a shoe-leather investigation by The Washington Post to prompt authorities to assess that the Trump Foundation, founded in 1987, was being used as the family A.T.M. The New York State attorney general charged the foundation with “improper and extensive political activity, repeated and willful self-dealing transactions, and failure to follow basic fiduciary obligations or to implement even elementary corporate formalities required by law.” Imagine if the foundation had been scrutinized years before Mr. Trump ran for president.
Democrats, paging through the catalog of legal malfeasance connected to the president, worry that investigating too many of them will make the party vulnerable to claims of overreach. But exuberance in defense of justice is no vice, so as long as they don’t go full #Benghazi. After all, accountability has been in short supply of late.
There are several kinds of success stories. We emphasize the ones starring brilliant inventors and earnest toilers. We celebrate sweat and stamina. We downplay the schemers, the short cuts and the subterfuge. But for every ambitious person who has the goods and is prepared to pay his or her dues, there’s another who doesn’t and is content to play the con. In the Trump era and the Trump orbit, these ambassadors of a darker side of the American dream have come to the fore.
.. What a con Holmes played with Theranos. For those unfamiliar with the tale, which the journalist John Carreyrou told brilliantly in “Bad Blood,” she dropped out of Stanford at 19 to pursue her Silicon Valley dream, intent on becoming a billionaire and on claiming the same perch in our culture and popular imagination that Steve Jobs did. She modeled her work habits and management style after his. She dressed as he did, in black turtlenecks. She honed a phony voice, deeper than her real one.
She spoke, with immaculate assurance, of a day when it might be on everyone’s bathroom counter: a time saver, a money saver and quite possibly a lifesaver. She sent early, imperfect versions of it to Walgreens pharmacies, which used it and thus doled out erroneous diagnoses to patients. She blocked peer reviews of it and buried evidence of its failures.
This went on not for months but for years, as Holmes attracted more than $900 million of investment money and lured a breathtakingly distinguished board of directors including two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger; a former secretary of defense, William Perry; and a future secretary of defense, James Mattis. What they had before them wasn’t proof or even the sturdy promise of revolutionary technology. It was a self-appointed wunderkind who struck a persuasive pose and talked an amazing game.
She was eventually found out, and faces criminal charges that could put her in prison. But there’s no guarantee of that. Meantime she lives in luxury. God bless America.
Theranos was perhaps an outlier in the scope of its deceptions, but not in the deceptions themselves. In an article titled “The Ugly Unethical Underside of Silicon Valley” in Fortune magazine in December 2016, Erin Griffith tallied a list of aborted ventures with more shimmer and swagger than substance, asserting: “As the list of start-up scandals grows, it’s time to ask whether entrepreneurs are taking ‘fake it till you make it’ too far.”
Dozens of interviews, court filings and other documents show Mr. Kilimnik to be an operator who moved easily between Russian, Ukrainian and American patrons, playing one off the other while leaving a jumble of conflicting suspicions in his wake. The effort to disentangle the mysteries surrounding him seems likely to leave questions even after the conclusion of the special counsel’s work.
To American diplomats in Washington and Kiev, he has been a well-known character for nearly a decade, developing a reputation as a broker of valuable information like the alliances of Ukraine’s oligarchs and the country’s handling of foreign investment and sensitive criminal cases.
.. Prosecutors have also scrutinized the effort by Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik to drum up political consulting business with Kremlin-aligned political figures in Ukraine and Russia who were pushing plans to end the simmering conflict between the countries.
Those so-called peace plans could have resulted in the easing of sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States — a policy shift to which Mr. Trump had signaled an openness during the campaign and one that would have been a major foreign policy victory for the Kremlin.
.. To some of those he encountered, he was an impish, 5-foot-tall cynic whose American associates nicknamed him “Carry-on” or “KK” and who was rejected for a job with an oil company in Moscow in late 2003 or early 2004 because he was seen as too meek.
At the same time, he did little to defuse long-running suspicions that he was a Russian agent. And his involvement in discussions related to back-channel peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia attracted attention from President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, which saw him as a functionary for oligarchs working to sell out Ukraine to Moscow’s benefit, a former United States official said.
Mr. Kilimnik, 49, who has Russian citizenship, now lives in Moscow. He is unlikely to ever face obstruction of justice charges that the special counsel brought against him and Mr. Manafort. And the once chatty operative — who was known for kibitzing with reporters, diplomats and political consultants over WhatsApp and in the bar of the Hyatt hotel in Kiev — has gone dark.
Mr. Kilimnik quickly made himself indispensable to Mr. Manafort, who spoke neither Ukrainian nor Russian. At the time, Mr. Manafort worked as a political and business consultant to the Ukrainian steel and coal oligarch Rinat L. Akhmetov, as well as the Russian aluminum oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska.
Mr. Kilimnik traveled extensively with Mr. Manafort, accompanying him to all his meetings and eventually becoming known as “Manafort’s Manafort” in Kiev.
“Paul took Konstantin under his wing, not just as a protégé but as his own surrogate son,” Mr. Caputo said.
Mr. Gates, who joined Mr. Manafort’s Ukraine team the year after Mr. Kilimnik and has since pleaded guilty to charges brought by Mr. Mueller stemming from his work there, later told an associate he knew that Mr. Kilimnik was a former officer with the G.R.U., according to a court filing by Mr. Mueller’s team.
In a February 2017 interview with The New York Times in Kiev, Mr. Kilimnik denied ever serving in a Russian intelligence agency. “What would I do if I were a real Russian spy?” he said. “I would not be here. I would be in Russia.”
But for the politicians and oligarchs who were Mr. Manafort’s clients, Mr. Kilimnik’s suspected intelligence connections suggested a seal of approval from Moscow. That was an important selling point, especially when combined with Mr. Manafort’s connections. The perception in political circles in Kiev was that hiring Mr. Manafort’s team would open doors in Washington and Moscow.
Mr. Akhmetov persuaded Mr. Manafort to try to resuscitate the political career of the former Ukrainian prime minister Viktor F. Yanukovych, a Russia-aligned figure who lost the 2004 presidential election amid allegations of vote-rigging.
In Mr. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, Mr. Kilimnik was “known as the representative of Russia,” said Taras V. Chernovyl, a former party member.
With help from Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik, Mr. Yanukovych won the presidency in 2010.
Mr. Manafort, who was not known for spreading the wealth among his subordinates, paid Mr. Kilimnik $530,000 for “professional services and administrative overhead for Kiev operations” from June 2013 to January 2014, according to Justice Department lobbying filings, which show that Mr. Manafort’s company was paid $17 million over a two-year stretch around that time.
.. By then, Mr. Kilimnik was married with two children. His family lived in a modest house not far from Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, where he traveled most weekends. But he lived a parallel life in Kiev, where he embraced trappings of his boss’s jet-setting lifestyle, trading the khakis and sweaters he wore at I.R.I. for tailored suits, a chauffeur-driven German car and evenings at an estate with a pool.
Things started going south for Mr. Yanukovych and, by extension, Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik, in late 2013, as mass protests erupted over the government’s corruption and pivot toward Russia. Mr. Yanukovych stepped down and fled in February 2014, eventually arriving in Moscow.
Russia began a military incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014. And Mr. Kilimnik leveraged his access to American diplomats for a new endeavor.
He turned up in Donetsk as the city was slipping into war, presenting himself as having “the State Department’s ear, the American ear in general,” said Aleksei Kovzhun, a member of a group of pro-Ukrainian political advisers working there.
.. Mr. Kilimnik joined their ranks, and in emails reviewed by The Times, he encouraged them to appease the Russian-speaking population, who, he wrote, merely wanted “stable work, good salaries and a turn to the better for their children.”
The American Embassy was overly focused on the Russian military threat, he said. “The whole American Embassy is counting barricades,” he wrote, adding about the United States diplomats he was in contact with, “the idiots.”
In hindsight, Mr. Kovzhun said, “I can see that he could easily be a Russian agent who just came to monitor the situation, and be in the center of pro-Ukrainian power in the region.”
With their primary benefactor in exile, Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik sought business with Russia-aligned factions that arose from the ashes of Mr. Yanukovych’s party.
A common goal for these factions was to pursue initiatives to settle the Ukraine conflict on terms seen by many in the country as favorable to Russia, and as an opening for an effort to persuade the United States and its allies to lift sanctions on Moscow.
Among the Russia-aligned Ukrainians they advised was Oleksandr V. Klymenko, who was a minister in Mr. Yanukovych’s government. Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik discussed plans to conduct polling in connection with a possible bid by Mr. Klymenko for president of Ukraine in 2019, even though he was living in exile in Moscow and under European Union sanctions, according to three people briefed on their activities.
Another client was a party backed by Serhiy Lyovochkin, a television company owner who served as Mr. Yanukovych’s chief of staff. The party, known as Opposition Bloc, had fallen behind in paying Mr. Manafort’s invoices, according to Mr. Kilimnik and other people familiar with the situation, and the pair hoped to persuade Mr. Lyovochkin to turn the spigot back on.
.. The situation was on Mr. Kilimnik’s agenda when he headed to the United States within a month of Mr. Manafort’s joining the Trump campaign, telling associates in Kiev that he also hoped to meet with Mr. Trump and to potentially work with his campaign in some capacity.
A White House spokesman said Mr. Trump was introduced to thousands of people during the 2016 campaign. While it is possible he met with Mr. Kilimnik, “the president has no recollection of it,” the spokesman said.
Around the time of Mr. Kilimnik’s trip to the United States in spring 2016, Mr. Manafort directed Mr. Gates to transfer some polling data to Mr. Kilimnik, including public polling and some developed by a private polling company working for the campaign, according to a person with knowledge of the arrangement.
Mr. Manafort asked Mr. Gates to tell Mr. Kilimnik to pass the data to Mr. Lyovochkin and Mr. Akhmetov, the person said. Representatives for both Mr. Lyovochkin and Mr. Akhmetov said they neither requested nor received the data, and would have had no use for it.
Mr. Mueller’s team has focused on what appears to have been another discussion about polling data in New York on Aug. 2, 2016. A partly redacted court transcript suggests that Mr. Gates, who entered a plea agreement with the special counsel that requires his cooperation, may have told prosecutors that Mr. Manafort had walked Mr. Kilimnik through detailed polling data at a meeting that day in the cigar lounge of the Grand Havana Room in Manhattan.
.. The meeting also included a conversation about one Ukrainian “peace plan,” according to court filings.
Prosecutors contend that Mr. Manafort lied to them about the meeting and other interactions with Mr. Kilimnik. Those lies, a federal judge ruled, violated Mr. Manafort’s agreement to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for consideration of a reduced sentence related to his work in Ukraine.
Mr. Manafort’s lies about his interactions with Mr. Kilimnik gave “rise to legitimate questions about where his loyalties lie,” Judge Amy Berman Jackson said.
.. Just before Mr. Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign in mid-August 2016 amid scrutiny of his work in Ukraine, the F.B.I. opened an investigation into the campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
It led to a guilty plea by Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, for lying to the F.B.I. about conversations with the Russian ambassador related to the sanctions.
By the inauguration, investigators were focusing on Mr. Kilimnik and his connections to Mr. Manafort.
Yet Mr. Kilimnik again traveled to the United States for Mr. Trump’s inauguration, meeting in the Washington area with Mr. Manafort, according to Mr. Mueller’s team.
.. While the trip was not publicly revealed until nearly two years later, it was on the F.B.I.’s radar. Peter Strzok, the agent who oversaw the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the election until he was reassigned and later fired for sending text messages critical of Mr. Trump, expressed frustration when he learned that Mr. Kilimnik had come and gone without being interviewed by agents.
Yet Mr. Kilimnik again traveled to the United States for Mr. Trump’s inauguration, meeting in the Washington area with Mr. Manafort, according to Mr. Mueller’s team.
While the trip was not publicly revealed until nearly two years later, it was on the F.B.I.’s radar. Peter Strzok, the agent who oversaw the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the election until he was reassigned and later fired for sending text messages critical of Mr. Trump, expressed frustration when he learned that Mr. Kilimnik had come and gone without being interviewed by agents.
“Everything is completely falling off the rails,” Mr. Strzok wrote in a text to a colleague on Jan. 23, 2017 — three days after the inauguration — referring to the missed opportunity.
The month after the inauguration, Mr. Kilimnik and Mr. Manafort met again and discussed a poll being planned for Mr. Klymenko’s prospective presidential campaign, according to court filings and interviews.
The poll was not conducted, according to people familiar with the arrangement, and Mr. Klymenko ultimately did not run.
In previously unpublished messages to The Times around the time of that meeting, Mr. Kilimnik suggested that the escalating news coverage was making him a target in both Ukraine and Russia.
“After another surge of attention, I am sure I will finally get on the radar screen of the Russian authorities,” he wrote.
Mr. Manafort’s allies point out that Mr. Mueller’s team has not publicly presented any evidence that Mr. Kilimnik is a Russian agent. They argue that it is unlikely that he is an agent because he was able to travel freely to the United States and deal regularly with its officials. To buttress this case, Mr. Manafort’s lawyers requested and received records from the government showing that Mr. Kilimnik communicated with officials at the American Embassy in Kiev.
“If he was a Russian intelligence asset, then the State Department officials who met with him over the years should be under investigation,” Mr. Caputo said.