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Ex-Trump campaign boss Paul Manafort's light sentence in Mueller case could soon become much longer

Key Points
  • Paul Manafort's first sentence in his legal battle with special counsel Robert Mueller shocked experts and energized President Donald Trump's supporters.
  • The longtime Republican operative was given a 47-month prison sentence Thursday night — well below the federal guidelines range of between 19 and 24 years.
  • But Manafort could face a tougher critic in his final sentencing next week when he is sentenced by Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington federal court, in a related case.
Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for Donald Trump, waves while exiting federal court in Washington, D.C.
Aaron P. Bernstein | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Paul Manafort's surprisingly light first sentence in his legal battle with special counsel Robert Mueller shocked experts and energized President Donald Trump's supporters.

But Manafort, who ran Trump's presidential campaign for several months in 2016, could face a less-lenient judge in his final sentencing next week.

The 69-year-old longtime Republican operative was given a 47-month prison sentence Thursday night, after being convicted in Virginia federal court on eight criminal counts including tax and bank fraud.

That was much shorter than the 19-to-24 years in prison recommended by federal sentencing guidelines.

Manafort was also slapped with a $50,000 fine. That was the bare minimum recommended by federal guidelines, which had suggested a fine of up to $24 million.

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The sentence was immediately viewed as a crushing loss for Mueller's prosecutors.

While Judge T.S. Ellis had been widely expected to hand down a sentence below what the guidelines suggested, few had predicted he would give Manafort such a light prison term.

Mueller's team clearly wanted a more severe punishment.

They had blasted Manafort in recent court filings as an unrepentant felon and liar who gave no indication that he would avoid committing crimes in the future. And while they did not recommend a specific sentence, they did not dispute the hefty prison term suggested by the guidelines.

Charges against Manafort

Most of the charges against Manafort related to income earned from his work as a political consultant for Ukraine's Russia-backed former president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort was accused by Mueller of defrauding the U.S. and its financial institutions after Yanukovich lost power in Ukraine, which dried up Manafort's consulting operation there.

Mueller's team accused Manafort of hiding millions of dollar in income from the U.S. government in overseas accounts, and lying to banks to secure millions of dollars in loans. Much of that money, prosecutors argued, was used to maintain Manafort's opulent lifestyle.

Despite that long-term misconduct, Ellis said before delivering his sentence that Manafort has "lived an otherwise blameless life."

Manafort has "been a good friend to others, a generous person," Ellis added.

While many legal experts were surprised by the leniency in Virginia, they predict that he will be slapped with a harsher sentence next Wednesday, when he appears in Washington, D.C., federal court before Judge Amy Berman Jackson.

After being convicted at trial in Virginia last August, Manafort struck a plea deal with prosecutors on the eve of his second trial in D.C., which would have dealt with crimes related to the Virginia case, as well as to witness tampering.

But that cooperation agreement imploded several months later, when Mueller's team accused Manafort of breaking the deal by lying to investigators.

A tougher audience

Because of statutory maximum rules, Jackson cannot give Manafort a prison sentence in the Washington case greater than 10 years.

Legal observers say Jackson is likely to apply the harshest sentence possible.

Jackson, who is also presiding over Mueller's case against political dirty trickster Roger Stone, has been viewed by many as a tougher audience for Manafort's defense team than Ellis.

That was made clear in June when Jackson ordered Manafort to jail pending trial after Mueller accused him of tampering with potential witnesses in his case.

Jackson "has a different perspective and judicial temperament" than Ellis, defense attorney and former federal prosecutor David Weinstein told CNBC.

Manafort has been held in an Alexandria, Virginia, jail for about nine months. He will get credit for that time against his 47-month sentence from Ellis and whatever Jackson gives him.

Weinstein said he expects Jackson to make Manafort's sentence in the Washington case consecutive, rather than concurrent, to what he received for the Virginia case.

Despite that expectation, Weinstein said Mueller's team "needs to use what happened" during the sentencing phase of the Virginia case "to strengthen their arguments" before Jackson.

Weinstein said he was "shocked" by Manafort's low sentence, calling it "a tremendous defeat for the special counsel's office."

Even before sentencing, Ellis had drawn scrutiny from legal experts for his dismissive attitude toward Mueller's prosecutors during the trial last summer.

Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor and Trump critic, noted that Ellis previously accused the special counsel of lodging tax and finance charges against Manafort merely as a fishing expedition to get more information for Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

"You don't really care about Mr. Manafort's bank fraud," Ellis fumed to prosecutors last May.

And Ellis' justification for handing Manafort a relatively light sentence immediately sparked a backlash from Tribe and others.

Tribe said that Ellis "has inexcusably perverted justice and the guidelines."

Former U.S. attorney Harry Litman called Ellis' sentence "a totally crazy and exorbitant departure" and "a black eye for the justice system" in a tweet.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a presidential candidate, called out Ellis in a tweet, saying that Manafort "led far from a 'blameless life.'"

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, echoed that take in her own tweet, which pointed out a disparity between how white-collar offenders are sometimes treated compared to perpetrators of blue-collar crimes.

"The words above the Supreme Court say "Equal Justice Under Law"—when will we start acting like it?" Warren tweeted.

In his own tweet Friday morning, the president claimed incorrectly that "both the Judge and the lawyer in the Paul Manafort case stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia."

Ellis actually had said that Manafort's crimes in that case were unrelated to the question of collusion with Russia. But the judge did not say that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

Trump, talking to reporters at the White House on Friday, said, "I feel very badly for Paul Manafort."

"I think it's been a very, very tough time for him," the president added.