Sarah Kendzior is the author of The View From Flyover Country and the host of Gaslit Nation
Paul Manafort is guilty, but we already knew that. We knew he was guilty of lying, when he brazenly denied his and U.S. President Donald Trump’s connections to Russia throughout 2016, despite massive evidence in the public domain indicating otherwise. We knew he was guilty of cruelty, as he dedicated his life to aiding dictators, mafiosos, oligarchs and others who profit off human suffering. What remained uncertain was whether Mr. Manafort would be found guilty in a court of law – because it is uncertain, in the cesspool of corruption that is Mr. Trump’s America, whether rule of law can endure.
A jury found Mr. Manafort guilty on eight counts on Tuesday, including tax fraud, hiding foreign bank accounts and bank fraud. Their verdict arrived after a contentious trial marked by disturbing incidents, including the judge proclaiming he had been threatened and was surrounding himself with armed security, and a non-sequestered jury that the President of the United States arguably tried to influence through Twitter with sympathetic tweets about Mr. Manafort. The trial combined elements of Mafia-style intimidation with the looming spectre of an unhinged autocrat, making justice seem tenuous. When justice prevailed, it felt like a small miracle.
But the key word here is “small.” Mr. Manafort is the symptom of a broader disease, and his conviction – while significant on a symbolic level – is the first step on a long road to strengthening the rule of law while the Trump administration simultaneously attempts to dismantle it. The crimes for which Mr. Manafort was convicted long predate his role in the 2016 campaign, raising the question of why this mobster multitasker was not stopped by law enforcement earlier.
In 2011, then-FBI director Robert Mueller gave a speech in which he described a new nexus of criminality, centred around the Russian mob but expansive in its adherents. He warned they would likely come to control the U.S. government and economy. “These groups may infiltrate our businesses,” he said. “They may provide logistical support to hostile foreign powers. They may try to manipulate those at the highest levels of government. Indeed, these so-called ‘iron triangles’ of organized criminals, corrupt government officials and business leaders pose a significant national security threat.”
Mr. Manafort, a GOP operative who served foreign oligarchs and dictators while committing a dazzling array of financial crimes, fits the profile Mr. Mueller described to an uncanny degree. Why, then, would such a dangerous figure be allowed to lead a presidential campaign, with little outcry from state officials or the media – indeed, with suspicions over his Kremlin connections derided by many pundits as “hysteria”? How much grief and suffering would vulnerable citizens have been spared if officials had acted on Mr. Mueller’s warning when he gave it?
The same can be said of Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, who pled guilty yesterday to eight counts of criminal activity, including violating campaign-finance law at the direction of a candidate presumed to be Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen’s confession is significant as it directly implicates the President and affects the whole GOP – Mr. Cohen served as deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee until June, 2018.
However, like Mr. Manafort, Mr. Cohen’s track record of alleged criminal acts goes back decades and includes threats of physical violence, blackmail and engaging in probable fraud while running a corrupt taxi business. Prior to the election, he boasted of his ties to the Russian mob and of his ability to game the system and bring Mr. Trump to power. Again: Why did officials not react with appropriate alarm to such obvious threats to democracy, particularly when these two took on major roles in a presidential campaign? That is the difficult question we need to ask even as we may rejoice at the wheels of justice finally turning.
The danger is not over: Mr. Trump rules like an autocrat, viewing himself as above the law, and has already flexed his muscle with inappropriate presidential pardons and political purges. He has threatened to end the Mueller probe and a cowardly, complicit GOP has done little to protect the investigation. That needs to be rectified immediately. Officials must take a cold, hard look at both their failure to stop these criminals earlier – and at how to prevent their boss, Mr. Trump, from further abusing his power and stripping away what remains of the path to justice.