Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Manafort trial is not what it appears to be
On your right
When is a thing in itself not a thing at all? This speculation redolent of Immanuel Kant took a stroll through my thoughts while reading the breathless anticipation and fevered coverage of the Paul Manafort trial. Manafort, for those currently withdrawing from media and other dwellers-under-rocks, is a long-time political operative, go-between and political fixer who operated at the highest levels of Washington’s foreign policy thicket on behalf of clients foreign and domestic, including presidential candidates. He was Donald Trump’s campaign manager for what seemed a few hours between Corey Lewandowski and Steve Bannon. He’s now in the dock on federal charges.
Not for “collusion with Russia,” nor for conspiring to throw the 2016 election; those aren’t even mentioned. He’s being charged instead with a bevy of financial crimes including money laundering and making false statements on tax forms dating from the 2006-14 period, during which he was a consultant to the government of Ukraine.
He is being tried by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, charged with getting to the bottom of rumors of “collusion” between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia.
Think on that: a man with tangential and brief ties to the Trump campaign is being tried by prosecutors not pointed at economic crimes, for financial ties to a country other than Russia, alleged to have taken place when Trump was not yet running for president. Which is somewhat akin to captain Ahab slaking his thirst for vengeance on the White Whale by catching catfish in a Mississippi pothole.
Everyone watching the trial knows the real target here is Trump, not Manafort. Mueller’s team is seeking a conviction so they may pressure Manafort to give evidence against the president. Given the questionable character of some of Mueller’s prosecutors — particularly Andrew Weissmann, reversed on appeal in previous cases for concealing evidence and prosecutorial misconduct — if convicted, Manafort may expect the choice given to Lewis Libby, aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney: say what we want or we’ll bury you.
Which makes this a trial for the judge as well. Alexandria federal court Judge T.S. Ellis III has already told Mueller’s team twice in open court that he knows full well their real target and that he didn’t like their game. He has cautioned prosecutors several times about using prejudicial language and about trying to convict Manafort of being a snappy dresser and a rich guy with foreign clients. Yes, an ostrich-skin coat collar is a crime of fashion, but that’s not really a chargeable offense.
Mueller’s prosecutors will persist and as Sidney Powell’s “Licensed to Lie” reveals, they won’t be particular about how they get their man. They are the Department of Justice; above reproach and fighting for a supreme good — as they and their fellow apparatchiks have determined it, and the rest of us be damned.
Those now cheering the Mueller team, those breathlessly reporting “the first step in undoing the Trump administration …” might want to stop and think carefully. We are witnessing an unfolding bureaucratic coup undertaken against a duly elected president by a group of high-level government law enforcement officials, many of whom supported their target’s political opponent. We are seeing the results of an effort over many years to merge the interests of a party and the state, and to forge from that merger weapons to attack political enemies. Remember Lois Lerner and the IRS? Gibson guitars and the EPA? Some may well cheer that development, not thinking that such weapons, once made, are difficult to unmake or to put aside. Nor that this development signals the terminal phase of the emergence of true fascism.
But it does. The word has specific meaning, one that has nothing to do with people saying things one finds inconvenient. It has to do with all interests being subsumed into the state, and the final merger of party and apparatus of government. We aren’t there yet, but neither are we far off. A terrible irony for the brownshirts of antifa, who doubtless shiver in anticipation of Manafort’s conviction, oblivious that it is another step toward the arrival of that they claim to loathe.
Since Kant began this rumination, it’s only fair to give him the last word. His categorical imperative states that only actions justified by laws one would wish to be universal are moral. By that measure, what are the actions occurring in Judge Ellis’ courtroom? And what should we do about that?
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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