Opinion

Paul Manafort, the gentleman thief

This is what happens when you stop enforcing the law on rich people

Gentleman criminal.

One of the most striking things about the indictment of President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and adviser Rick Gates — and the guilty plea from another Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to the FBI — is the brazenness and incompetence of it all. Manafort and Gates allegedly barely even tried to hide their ill-gotten gains, while Papadopoulos communicated through a hilariously insecure channel (namely, Facebook chat).

It's emblematic of the culture of impunity that has developed in the American elite over the last generation. Rich people like Manafort and Trump have learned that they can get away with just about anything. Why even bother trying to hide things, if nobody will even try to catch you?

If nothing else, perhaps the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller will put some long-overdue fear into the huge population of upper-class American criminals.

Now, it's important to note that while Papadopoulos pleaded guilty, Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty, and have not been convicted of anything yet. Like any other accused criminal, they deserve their day in court (or perhaps their chance to plead guilty and roll on other criminals further up the food chain in exchange for a reduced charge).

However, the alleged money laundering conducted by Manafort was so obvious that a couple attorneys spotted it months before the indictment landed. The alleged scam, as detailed in the indictment, worked like this: First you create a company in some foreign tax haven (in this case Cyprus, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Seychelles), and buy some property with that company. Then, take out a loan against the property and claim it's for home improvements. Hey presto, you've got a bunch of money, and you don't have to claim it on your taxes or say where you got it. It's a super-common way to launder money.

But it can also be a fairly easy crime to root out, because you're obviously not spending the money on home improvements. Two lawyers in New York, Julian Russo and Matthew Termine, discovered Manafort's transactions through public records, and published them on their own site back in February. The transactions looked extremely suspect. The Intercept's David Dayen did some digging of his own, and confirmed the story. Among other odd things, on a couple of Manafort's properties he had borrowed far more than the property was worth — and he reportedly spent the money on a slew of obvious and extremely expensive luxury goods. If you wanted to get caught laundering money, that's pretty much exactly how you'd go about it.

Or consider another of Manafort's alleged crimes: failing to register as a foreign agent. The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 requires lobbyists for foreign governments to register as such. In elite Washington circles — where roughly every fourth person is taking money to downplay human rights abuses conducted by Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, or similar countries — violating this law is absolutely rampant, because the Justice Department has barely enforced it for decades. Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who is reportedly another target of the Mueller probe, also may have violated this law, when he lobbied on behalf of Turkish interests and only afterwards registered as a foreign agent (just as Manafort did).

Indeed, Manafort's indictment created a wave of unease among the well-heeled dictator shills of both parties in Washington. "It’s a swampy place, and the swampy stink knows no partisan allegiance," a senior Democratic congressional aide told Buzzfeed News' John Hudson and Zoe Tillman. A broad crackdown is probably unlikely — but there have already been some bipartisan career casualties. Tony Podesta, founder of the Podesta Group and brother of Hillary Clinton's campaign chair John Podesta, stepped down from his firm on Monday because he had lobbied on behalf of the same Ukrainian interests as Manafort and is now under investigation by Mueller as well.

Papadopoulos, by contrast, appears merely real stupid. The unsealed indictment (which he admitted as fact as part of the plea deal) says that after lying to the FBI about trying to arrange contacts with Russian sources through a professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy, and the director of programs at the Russian International Affairs Council, Papadopoulos deactivated his Facebook account (which had chats with Timofeev) and got a new phone number. The FBI, of course, had no problem obtaining the chats, and Papadopoulos was arrested on July 27. What a complete chump.

As Jesse Eisinger writes, punishment for crime committed by elites has all but collapsed over the past couple decades. Whether it's allegedly paying the district attorney not to prosecute a sexual assault charge or the rise of deferred prosecution agreements for white-collar crime, elites have lately gotten away with a staggering amount of lawbreaking.

This is the result: an absolute plague of dimwitted swindlers, liars, and two-bit cheats in the highest circles of government.

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