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Blow to Mueller as Paul Manafort gets under four years in prison

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was sentenced to nearly four years in prison on Thursday for concealing millions of dollars he earned overseas.

The surprisingly light sentence of 47 months is likely to see Manafort, who is 69 years old, released in about three years or less, as it includes nine months of time served. It fell well short of federal sentencing guidelines.

It represented an implicit rebuke to special counsel Robert Mueller, whose prosecutors had called for 19 to 24 years — a range that would probably have led to the long-time GOP consultant dying in jail. Manafort does, however, still face sentencing in a separate case.

Ellis told Manafort that he "stood convicted of very serious crimes." Seemingly preparing for critiques of the unexpectedly lighter sentence, Ellis said: "I think what I’ve done is sufficiently punitive — and anyone who disagrees should try spending a day in a federal penitentiary. And he’s spending 47 months."

Manafort was found guilty last year of five tax fraud charges, two bank fraud charges, and one charge of hiding foreign bank accounts. The charges were brought against him by special counsel Robert Mueller, who uncovered evidence of the violations as part of his sweeping investigation into President Trump's alleged collusion with Russia to win the 2016 election.

Mueller's office has spent weeks arguing against leniency for Manafort in sentencing memo filings. Mueller's office said Manafort has shown a “lack of remorse" and said Manafort " blames everyone from the Special Counsel's Office to his Ukrainian clients for his own criminal choices." In court, prosecutors continued to insist that "Mr. Manafort did not provide sufficient cooperation to merit any mitigation." And they reminded the judge that "no one conjured these crimes up" and that "a jury of his peers found him guilty."

"Mr. Manafort fails to accept responsibility and he remains unremorseful," prosecutors said.

Mueller's office had recommended a sentence ranging from 19 to 24 years in prison. When arguing for this lengthy sentence, the special counsel’s office said “Manafort’s misconduct involved more than $16 million in unreported income resulting in more than $6 million in federal taxes owed, more than $55 million hidden in foreign bank accounts, and more than $25 million secured from financial institutions through lies resulting in a fraud loss of more than $6 million.”

Manafort’s attorneys accused Mueller of "attempting to vilify Mr. Manafort as a lifelong and irredeemable felon" and claimed prosecutors had gone “beyond the pale and grossly overstated the facts before the Court."

[Related: The Navy fighter pilot judge who shot down Mueller]

In court, they focused on what they believed to be the common nature of the crimes that Manafort had committed, pushing back on the idea that Manafort was a uniquely nefarious character. "These are serious crimes. I understand that. No one is disputing that ... Tax evasion isn't jaywalking, but it's also by no means narcotics trafficking."

Explaining his decision, Ellis said that he was trying to treat this case like another tax evasion case might be handled: "There’s been a trend in the sentencing in these types of cases — and the sentences have been remarkably light. And I need to take that into account. To impose a sentence of 19-24 years on Mr. Manafort would clearly be a disparity. In the end, I don’t think the guidelines range is at all appropriate." Ellis said: "This is not a mathematical calculation, it’s a judgment. But it’s a judgment guided by everything that has been raised."

Manafort was clad in a light green prison shirt with "Alexandria Inmate" stamped across the back and was seated in a wheelchair throughout the proceedings. Manafort spoke to the judge ahead of his sentencing, thanking him for a fair trial and asking for compassion.

"Humiliated and shamed would be a gross understatement... My life is personally and professionally in shambles," he said, detailing how difficult he said the past two years have been for him and his family. "The man I have seen described in public is not a man I recognize."

During his own final remarks, Ellis expressed disappointment with Manafort's statement: "I was surprised to not hear you express regret. I was surprised you didn’t say you were very regretful for engaging in criminal conduct. That won’t influence my decision, but I hope you reflect on that."

Legal observers had long wondered how the outspoken Judge T.S. Ellis might rule. During the court proceedings in 2018, Ellis had told prosecutors: “You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud … What you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment.”

Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 and helped him win delegates for Trump during the primaries. He also helped defeat a July 2016 effort on the floor of the Republican National Convention to open up the convention to a challenge to Trump. Manafort left the Trump campaign in August 2016, prior to Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

His finances and his foreign lobbying work, especially work associated with Russia-linked clients in Ukraine, came under renewed scrutiny during the campaign. He retroactively registered himself under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 2017.

During Thursday's hearing, Ellis made it clear that his decision was about the fraud and financial crimes at hand, and that "Mr. Manafort is not before the court for any allegation that he or anybody under his direction collided with the Russian government in the 2016 campaign."

Ellis did, however, remind the court that he'd previously ruled that the special counsel was authorized under the law to pursue this case.

Manafort pleaded guilty in a separate case in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14, 2018 to two counts of conspiracy, including committing crimes against the United States and obstructing justice. Mueller’s office later alleged that Manafort broke his plea agreement, and Judge Amy Berman Jackson agreed.

That means Manafort faces a second sentencing hearing on March 13. The sentencing recommendation from Mueller's office in that case is for another 17 years to 22 years in prison. Ellis said today that Jackson will have to decide whether Manafort is allowed to serve his two sentences concurrently or one after the other.

Manafort's attorneys say that for the 69-year-old Manafort, "a significant additional period of incarceration will likely amount to a life sentence for a first time offender."