WASHINGTON – “I thought about this long and hard, Mr. Manafort. I have no appetite for this.”
In an overflow room at the D.C. federal courthouse in the shadow of the Capitol, the voice of Judge Amy Berman Jackson came through reedy and distant from the ceiling speakers. But her decision was unequivocal. Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the disgraced king of Washington’s lobbying industry, had violated the terms of his house arrest. He was going to jail.
President Trump slammed the decision on Twitter, touting Manafort’s past work for Republican presidential candidates and calling Jackson’s decision an overreaction:
Wow, what a tough sentence for Paul Manafort, who has represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other top political people and campaigns. Didn’t know Manafort was the head of the Mob. What about Comey and Crooked Hillary and all of the others? Very unfair!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 15, 2018
Manafort is the first ex-Trump campaign aide to be jailed as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the campaign and its interactions with Russian officials. Mueller has also secured guilty pleas from five others and indicted 17 Russian individuals and organizations as part of his investigation.
Manafort, who is 69, faces charges of money laundering, failing to register as a foreign lobbyist, conspiracy against the U.S. and bank fraud, among other allegations. But Friday’s hearing concerned a more recent allegation: that Manafort and an associate from his overseas consulting work had obstructed justice by engaging in witness tampering, contacting potential witnesses by phone and an encrypted messaging app.
In court, Mueller’s prosecutors argued that Manafort, by contacting would-be witnesses, had violated the terms of his release and should go to jail. Manafort’s lawyers, for their part, mounted a spirited if unconvincing (and sometimes laughable) defense on behalf of their client. They said Manafort’s outreach to two potential witnesses, identified in court as D1 and D2, did not amount to witness tampering – that, yes, he had reached out to them but not for the purpose of swaying them in his favor. Manafort’s lawyers said that his use of WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service, meant nothing about the purpose or intent of the messages he sent. The lawyer noted, to snickers, that WhatsApp was something his children used.
Judge Jackson struck a sympathetic if exasperated tone as she spoke about Manafort and his actions over the course of Friday’s hearing. She walked the courtroom through the nuances of the Bail Reform Act, questioned the government’s and Manafort’s attorneys with equal rigor and weighed aloud whether Manafort – if allowed to remain free on bail – posed a threat to any individuals or to the broader community.
After a short break, Jackson returned and gave her decision. She strained to think of any way, she said, to protect against Manafort contacting more witnesses if allowed to remain at home. “This is not middle school,” she said. “I can’t take his cell phone.” Manafort’s actions, his untrustworthiness, she said, left her no choice: Manafort had to go to jail until his trial dates. “You’ve abused the trust placed in you six months ago.”
An odd cheer broke the silence of the overflow room; the celebration came from an older man with a snow-white beard and owlish glasses who was, by all indications, just there for the show. The hordes of journalists and other attendees beat a hasty exit and sprinted for a chance to glimpse Manafort. There was no sign of the man himself, but within minutes a feisty scrum of cameramen and reporters had set up outside one of the main entrances to the courthouse.
Finally, after waiting around in the heat, the photographers spotted Manafort’s wife, Kathleen, waiting behind the double doors of the courthouse. “She knows we’re not leaving, right?” one photog said to another. Kathleen Manafort eventually emerged surrounded by two men who muscled her through the crowd and into an idling Land Rover.
“Mrs. Manafort, are you gonna visit Paul in prison?” someone called out.
There was a brief tussle as Kathleen and an elderly man in Manafort’s camp got into the car.
“Let me through!”
“Just get out of the way.”
Before the car could peel away from the irritated and sweaty cameramen and reporters, putting the latest chapter of the Mueller probe in the books, a protester managed to call out, “Are you gonna send Paul commissary money?”