Thursday’s news that a federal judge had sentenced President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort — convicted of massive white-collar fraud, including not paying $6 million in those taxes that “the little people” like you and me can’t avoid — to less than four years behind bars, or a small fraction of federal guidelines, sent shock waves through the criminal justice world.
Nowhere, apparently, did the anger ring out more loudly than the corridors of a federal detention center just outside Fort Worth, Texas. That’s where 27-year-old Reality Winner is serving out her sentence for blowing the whistle on a hushed-up Russian scheme to hack into voting rolls in the 2016 presidential election by leaking a classified document. For that action — which had the positive effect of some states tightening their election security — the Air Force veteran is serving five years and three months behind bars.
“Everyone in the prison she is in is angry about Manafort’s sentence,” Winner’s mom, Billie J. Winner-Davis, told me by email on Saturday morning, just after getting off the phone with her daughter. Winner-Davis said that Winner’s bunkmate at the Federal Medical Center Carswell is serving 14 years for a conviction on a single white-collar charge “nowhere near what Manafort was convicted of.”
“Crystal Mason is also there with her,” Winner-Davis added — referring to a black Texas mother of three who was sentenced to both 10 months in federal prison and an additional five years in a state lockup for unknowingly but unlawfully casting a 2016 provisional ballot that was never even counted. “Reality and her pass each other in the hall and remark about the news.”
The news these days is overflowing with irony — almost too much to bear. Winner — a whistleblower who took a radical action trying to wake up America to the threat that Russian meddling posed to the integrity of our elections, the core of our democracy — gets 63 months. Manafort — a multimillion-dollar fraudster and seemingly incorrigible liar and felon, who shared key polling data about that same election to an alleged Russian agent — gets only 47 months (for now).
On the surface, the outrage over the seemingly light slap on Manafort’s starched, gold-cuff-linked wrist from U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III reflected the growing answer over a dual system of justice in America that seems to offer leniency and endless second chances for a criminal defendant in tailored suits (or a $15,000 ostrich jacket) but throws the book hard at shoplifters and small-time pot dealers, let along someone like Winner from a tumbleweed town like Kingsville, Texas.
Dig deeper and it gets more complicated. For starters, the issue in 2019 arguably isn’t so much that Manafort’s sentence is too light (in the 1970s, a much different era, key figures in the Watergate scandal got far less time, with Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and ex-attorney general, John Mitchell, ultimately serving just 19 months) but that most criminal sentences in the mass-incarceration capital of the world are too harsh. Also, Manafort isn’t done yet — and a seemingly tougher federal judge, Amy Berman Jackson, could bring the hammer down this week when the former Trump aide is sentenced this week on a second slate of felonies.
I think the real source of angst over the Manafort sentence is this: A growing fear that an American criminal justice system that is so badly broken, and fundamentally unfair, simply isn’t up to the task of handling the massive gold toilet seat of corruption and dishonesty that is Donald J. Trump and the rogues’ gallery surrounding him. Manafort’s unexpectedly light sentence — and the seeming obsequiousness of Ellis (named to the bench by Ronald Reagan, the president Manafort had once advised), who looked at a 40-year rolling snowball of slime and somehow saw "an otherwise blameless life — may have been just the beginning. In a very short time, we’ll learn if Trump’s new handpicked attorney general will take the comprehensive report of Manafort’s prosecutor, Robert Mueller, and bury it from the American people.
Manafort’s case so far seems to have conveyed the evergreen message that if you’re going to steal in America, steal large. Within minutes of the news early Thursday evening that Manafort, who faced federal sentencing guidelines that called for 19 to 24 years, had instead received 47 months, TV pundits and criminal-justice tweeters were scrambling to find cases of everyday Americans, many of them poor and black or brown, serving longer sentences for crimes that involved pocket change, sometimes literally.
Scott Hechinger, a Brooklyn public defender with a large Twitter following, got considerable play for saying that same week that prosecutors had dangled a sentence of 36 to 72 months — or potentially more time behind bars than Manafort — for a client who’d stolen $100 worth of quarters from a residential laundry room.
Others thought more tragically of Kalief Browder, the New Yorker who was merely accused at age 16 of stealing a backpack, spent three years on Rikers Island — two in solitary confinement — and was never tried or convicted, and who committed suicide after his release. That’s the problem — finding injustice in this country, especially when the variables involves race or wealth, is the proverbial case of shooting fish in a barrel.
I was struck by how someone like Manafort — who, as chronicled so well by the The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer, spent his life propping up corrupt and usually murderous dictators and warlords like the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, and Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych — is thought to have led “an otherwise blameless life” because he did it in an $8,000 suit. We don’t give “the otherwise blameless" treatment to a young black man like Sacramento’s Stephon Clark — not a perpetrator but a victim, shot by police for holding a cell phone and then dragged through mud by prosecutors as “suicidal” when those cops aren’t charged. No wonder people are out in the streets.
And yet while injustice and the rise of a privileged class has been worsening for decades, there is a worrisome political edge to injustice in the Trump era. In that one Texas federal detention center outside of Fort Worth, you have both Winner — who got a ridiculously harsh sentence for a whistleblower, when that whistle involved Russia’s criminality in helping Trump get elected — and Mason, a black woman being held up as an example of the so-called massive voting fraud alleged by the president, something that doesn’t exist in the world of (no pun intended) reality. Meanwhile, the wheels of justice are turning slowly when it comes to corruption in Trumpland — even as the papers are filled daily with new evidence of crimes and power abuses.
Entire books have been written — with many more surely to come — about the web of corruption that spreads from the Emoluments Clause to a bogus charity to illegal hush money to expanding probes into Trump’s fishy banking and insurance practices. Just this weekend, a new bombshell went off with reports that the founder of the now-infamous Florida “day spa” linked to prostitution, and possibly human trafficking, not only palled around at Mar-a-Lago with the president of the United States and other top Republicans, but created a firm to sell that access to wealthy Chinese citizens.
For any other president, that kind of scandal might lead to his downfall. In Trumpland, it was just Saturday. If only we could catch Trump with the quarters from the laundry room. Going after Mafia-style corruption in the Oval Office — with a president who speaks in code like Vito Corleone and calls witnesses “rats” — is a lot harder. Part of the problem is that Trump surrounded himself with congenital liars like Manafort, who fibbed to Mueller’s team even after he pledged to cooperate, and Michael Cohen, who may have lied again to Congress even as he prepares to go to prison for lying to Congress.
But the biggest problem is this: We just don’t trust the American jurisprudence system to mete out real justice to people as rich and as powerful as Donald Trump and his cronies. The next couple of weeks are likely to be the greatest test of whether our nearly 243-year experience in democracy still works since the final days of Watergate. The public has been waiting two long years to learn the truth from Mueller about what really happened with Russia in the 2016 election and with efforts to cover that up. But there’s no guarantee that just-appointed-by-Trump Attorney General William Barr will release the Mueller report, or that Congress will have the ability — let alone the will — to act on its findings.
Of course, those fears may prove unfounded. The counterargument is that the unflappable Mueller and his experienced prosecutors have mapped out an endgame so that American people do get the truth, one way or the other. But even then, that truth will be paddling upstream into a system of rigged rules, tainted precedents and myopic judges like T.S. Ellis that favors people who can afford a Fifth Avenue tailor. The mantra in late 1974, when the dust finally settled from Watergate, was “the system worked.” I’m not nearly as confident we’ll be saying that when the clock ticks down on 2019.