Donald Trump has rarely caught a break since special counsel Robert Mueller clamped a vise around his White House two years ago.
Yet the shorter than expected sentence handed to his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is giving the President a few, rare crumbs of comfort as he faces down an expansive set of criminal, civil and congressional investigations into his presidency, campaign, business empire and personal life.
The Virginia judge who handed Manafort a 47-month sentence – far below the federal guidelines for his crimes – also gave Trump a propaganda tool for his fervent effort to discredit Mueller’s investigation when he pointed out that the conviction was for bank and tax fraud and not for colluding with Russia.
“I just want to tell you that his lawyer went out of his way actually to make a statement last night, no collusion,” Trump told reporters Friday morning before departing for Alabama, adding, “The judge, for whatever reason, I was very honored by it, also made the statement that this had nothing to do with collusion with Russia.”
In fact, Judge T.S. Ellis only said that collusion wasn’t an issue for him to consider in the case. He did not assess whether it happened or not.
Trump had already seized on new doubts about the credibility of his former lawyer Michael Cohen, who branded the President a con man and a liar in a sensational Capitol Hill hearing last week, but who is facing new accusations of perjury.
Nothing that happened Thursday lessened Trump’s potential legal or political exposure, or repudiated Mueller’s investigation, which has uncovered a pattern of lying by Trump acolytes about unexplained ties to Russia. It’s a measure of how grim the last few years have been for the President that the jailing of his former campaign chairman could be interpreted in any way as good news for his White House.
And no one outside Mueller’s circle has any idea what his final report – expected to be delivered to Attorney General William Barr soon – will say about the President’s conduct.
But Thursday’s events did raise some political and legal questions about the ambition of Mueller’s prosecutors, their tactics when confronted by a skeptical judge and the credibility being placed in Cohen’s deeply damaging testimony against Trump last week.
In the win-loss calculation that has characterized Trump’s life, the President can extract some advantage from the surprising courtroom drama. Anything that be spun as a blow to the special counsel will be seized on in Trump’s conservative media echo chamber in the campaign to bolster the President’s standing among core GOP voters that is critical to his long-term viability.
Mueller’s team had asked for a 19-25 year jail term for a tax and finance fraud conviction arising from Manafort’s lavish lifestyle as a sharp suited uber-lobbyist who spun his dark arts for pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine.
That would have sent the 69-year-old Manafort to jail likely for the rest of his life. But the less than four-year term shocked many legal observers and sparked looks of astonishment among prosecutors in Ellis’ courtroom.
The judge’s leniency does not change the fact of Manafort’s conviction by a jury of his peers. A judge in Washington, who has been less well disposed toward Manafort, will sentence him next week in a separate case, in which he has been accused of lying to Mueller and breaching a plea deal.
Most observers think he could be facing a decade behind bars in a sentence that could run concurrently or begin after the one handed down Thursday.
Whatever happens next week, Ellis effectively handed Trump’s team a welcome talking point, when he pointed out Manafort was being sentenced for tax and bank fraud not colluding with Russia.
“The sentence was a lot less than the out of control Angry Democrat prosecutors wanted,” said Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani in a statement.
“They should be ashamed of their horrendous treatment of Paul Manafort who they pressured relentlessly because, unlike Michael Cohen, he wouldn’t lie for them.”
Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing said outside court: “I think what most importantly what you saw today is the same thing that we said from Day 1 …. “There is absolutely no evidence that Paul Manafort was involved in any collusion with any government official from Russia.”
Manafort’s lawyers had sought to show during the trial that their client was prosecuted more rigorously than another defendant might have been owing to his close links to the President – an argument Ellis seemed to accept.
‘Miscarriage of justice’
Trump’s critics expressed disbelief at Manafort’s sentence.
“The American people would be justified in feeling that there has been some miscarriage of justice here in the leniency of this sentence,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, told CNN’s Erin Burnett on “OutFront.”
Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blasted Manafort’s sentencing as a prime example of sentencing disparities between high- and low-income defendants.
“Paul Manafort getting such little jail time for such serious crimes lays out for the world how it’s almost impossible for rich people to go to jail for the same amount of time as someone who is lower income,” the New York Democrat tweeted. “In our current broken system, ‘justice’ isn’t blind. It’s bought.”
Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor and CNN legal commentator said that a below-guidelines sentence would have been perfectly fair, but that 47 months “is a joke.”
“Steal millions from US Government, violate bail, get convicted by jury, fake cooperate, lie to prosecutors, refuse to accept responsibility - and get an enormous break. That’s an unjust sentence,” Honig tweeted.
In the short term, Trump and his allies are likely to seize upon the sentence to argue that Mueller fell short of his goals after an ambitious trial and reached beyond his mandate by pursuing him at all.
The President has mounted a long-term campaign to discredit Mueller and has made a practice of turning any road bump encountered by the special counsel into fodder to try to fan public skepticism of his investigation. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, an outspoken Trump ally, claimed that Thursday’s developments proved that the Mueller probe was a “witch hunt.”
But Trump’s efforts to profit from Thursday’s sentencing could be undermined as soon as next week when Judge Amy Berman Jackson presides over the next stage in Manafort’s legal battle.
“This is just half time as far as the sentencing of Paul Manafort is concerned,” said Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor on CNN on Thursday. “When the game is over this will be looking a lot closer to the 10 years than the five and Paul Manafort will not be high-fiving.”
The sentencing combined with Manafort’s failure to express remorse sparked immediate speculation about the possibility that Trump could pardon his former campaign chair.
“The statement by Paul Manafort’s lawyer after an already lenient sentence – repeating the President’s mantra of no collusion – was no accident. It was a deliberate appeal for a pardon. One injustice must not follow another,” Adam Schiff, D-California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted.
Manafort’s chances of a pardon may indeed have risen since to spare him a 47-month sentence may be seen as less politically risky for the President than springing him from a 25-year jail term.
But CNN legal commentator Carrie Cordero suggested that the judge’s decision to show leniency also could serve to undermine arguments that Manafort deserved further mercy.
“(It is) very hard for the President to now suggest that Paul Manafort has been treated unfairly. He has in fact, by Judge Ellis, been given a bit of grace,” Cordero told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on “AC360.”
Cohen under fire
As Manafort faced his judgment day, Cohen was facing fresh attacks on his credibility amid accusations that he lied to Congress during his explosive testimony last week.
Trump’s former attorney told lawmakers that he had never asked for and would not accept a pardon from Trump. Yet multiple sources told CNN’s Gloria Borger that the prospect of a pardon was raised more than once between Cohen’s lawyer and attorneys representing the President.
The matter is being investigated in Congress following Cohen’s public and private testimony before three congressional committees over the past two weeks.
In question is whether there was an effort to seek a pardon or offer a pardon in exchange for the cooperation who will go to prison in May after admitting tax and financial crimes and lying to Congress.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said he told Cohen that he would “nail you to the cross” if he did not tell the truth to lawmakers again.
“I’m going to study the transcript first, that’s No. 1. I’m going to see what the allegations are and then I’ll go from there,” Cummings told CNN’s Manu Raju.
Trump is not waiting for any investigation to take a new shot at his former legal fixer, tweeting an MSNBC headline: “Cohen’s lawyer contradicts Cohen’s testimony about never seeking a Presidential Pardon.
CNN’s Dana Bash contributed to this report.