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Team Trump makes history with Manafort's prison sentence

The man who oversaw the sitting president's political operation received a multi-year prison sentence. We've never seen that happen before.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort departs from U.S. District Court
FILE PHOTO: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort departs from U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

Paul Manafort, who led Donald Trump's political operation in 2016, was sentenced to 47 months in prison late yesterday, after having been convicted of a variety of felonies, including tax crimes and bank fraud. The sentence was immediately controversial for reasons that have little to do with the president.

Manafort, who expressed little remorse for his crimes and failed to accept responsibility for his misdeeds, could've been sentenced to spend the next couple of decades behind bars. Instead, Judge T.S. Ellis of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia criticized federal sentencing guidelines, after having already criticized federal prosecutors for bringing these charges, and let Trump's former campaign off relatively easy.

There are, not surprisingly, a few ways to look at these developments. As NBC News' report noted, many observers "highlighted the disparity between punishments for white-collar crime like Manafort's and street crime, and between the sentences for wealthy people and everyone else." Or as former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, who was in the courtroom for much of Manafort's trial, told Rachel on the show last night:

"To drop down from 19 years to 24 years all the way down to four years, I think suggests that the wealthy and the powerful do better in court than many other defendants do, and I think it is an attack on the legitimacy of the criminal justice system."If you are someone who is indigent or lacking in power, I think you look at a sentence like this and it causes people to have less trust in the criminal justice system."

In terms of the legal proceedings, it's worth emphasizing that yesterday was the first of a one-two punch for Manafort. Next week, he'll appear in a D.C. court, where he'll receive a sentence for an entirely different set of felonies -- including obstruction of justice -- for which he's also been convicted. Trump's former campaign chairman could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, though we don't yet know whether that sentence would run consecutively or concurrently.

But as difficult as Ellis' sentence is to defend, there's another angle that the White House's allies should probably find more discouraging.

The fact remains that we've never seen what transpired in that Virginia courtroom yesterday: the man who led the sitting president's political operation was sentenced to a multi-year prison sentence.

The last time we saw anything like this was 1975, when John Mitchell, Richard Nixon's former campaign manager, was also sent to prison, though by that point, Nixon had already resigned in disgrace. Nearly a half-century later, the circumstances are a little worse -- because Trump is still in office.

That's no small development. Imagine, for example, what the response would be from the political world if, in Hillary Clinton's first term as president, her campaign chairman was convicted of multiple felonies and sentenced to years in a federal penitentiary.

I think it's likely that it would cause quite a stir, regardless of whether the sentence was in line with federal sentencing guidelines or not.

The president who assured voters that he'd only surround himself with "the best" people ended up surrounding himself with a wide variety of felons.

T.S. Ellis probably deserves all of the criticisms he's receiving, but stepping back, yesterday's developments were the latest in a series of historic embarrassments for Team Trump.