WASHINGTON — In the final moments before Paul Manafort's sentencing on Wednesday, the former Trump campaign chief's lawyers appealed for mercy — but not necessarily from the judge.
Convictions for tax and bank fraud, illegal lobbying and witness tampering have been "very hard" on his client, Kevin Downing pleaded in U.S. District Court in Washington. "The media attention, the political motivation ... is so unreal."
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson cut him off. "Whose political motivation?" she asked.
Downing fumbled like Sarah Palin replying to Katie Couric: "Everybody out there," he said.
The judge pressed: Was Downing accusing the special counsel of political motivation?
"No," Downing said, retreating.
But that is exactly what he — and Manafort — have been insinuating.
President Donald Trump and Manafort have been using their public statements to coordinate with each other with the rhythm of synchronized swimmers. Trump praises Manafort for not flipping on him, and Manafort's lawyers dutifully repeat Trump's mantras — that there was "no collusion" between the campaign and Russia and that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has taken a partisan detour. It's clear Manafort's hope, if not expectation, is for Trump to pardon him.
The judge was wise to the signaling. After Downing suggested Wednesday that Manafort's manifold crimes wouldn't have been prosecuted "but for a short stint as a campaign manager in a presidential election," Jackson unloaded on him.
The defense's "repeated" claim that Manafort wouldn't have been charged but for the special counsel, she said, "falls flat" and "is not supported by the record." In an apparent reference to Trump, the judge speculated that the claim "was being repeated for some other audience."
Jackson tore into the Manafort defense's claim that Mueller's team took a technical violation and "transmogrified it" into a major case. "To the extent that's the correct word, it was the defendant who was the transmogrifier," she said.
As for the other claim frequently offered by Manafort's defense, "the 'no collusion' mantra is simply a non sequitur," she said, adding that it is "not clear if it is accurate" and that her ruling doesn't vindicate or incriminate anyone in Mueller's broader investigation.
That was another apparent reference to Trump, who falsely claimed that last week's sentencing of Manafort in a separate trial vindicated his "no collusion" claim. An Obama appointee, Jackson offered a mantra of her own: "If people don't have the facts, democracy can't work," she said. "Court is one of those places where facts still matter."
Validating the judge's suspicions about "some other audience," Downing falsely declared to TV cameras immediately after the sentencing that "Judge Jackson conceded that there was absolutely no evidence of any Russian collusion in this case."
Based on the sighs I heard in the courtroom, Jackson's sentence — adding 43 months to last week's 47-month sentence in Virginia — disappointed prosecutors. But she displayed far more professionalism than Judge T.S. Ellis III, who, when his harassment of prosecutors during the Virginia trial didn't sway jurors to acquit Manafort, gave a flagrantly light sentence. Manafort's fate still depends both on further prosecution (New York state just announced indictments) and Trump's possible pardon.
But Wednesday's sentencing carried symbolic weight; two dozen Justice Department officials, including several top Mueller lieutenants, attended. Manafort, 69, in a business suit instead of a prison jumpsuit, was gray-haired (no hair dye in jail) and in a wheelchair because of gout. He sat at the defense table, his back to prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, who derided Manafort's claim to have spent a lifetime "advancing American ideals and principles."
Weissmann said Manafort worked illegally for foreign governments, cheated the Treasury of $6 million and has a malfunctioning "moral compass."
The defense claimed, with some contradiction, that Manafort deserved leniency both because he accepts responsibility and because he maintains he didn't play a "leadership role" in the crimes.
If restrained in her sentencing, the judge was liberal in criticism. She said "it's hard to overstate the number of lies" and the "amount of fraud" Manafort committed, living extravagantly on ill-gotten money, lying to members of Congress and the public, showing "ongoing contempt" for court proceedings and even mischaracterizing his prison conditions.
"The elements of remorse and personal responsibility were completely absent," Jackson said, describing Manafort's continued "dissembling at every turn" and his "willingness to win at all costs." His behavior, she said, is "antithetical to the American values he told me he championed."
Manafort stood briefly, then was wheeled away — to await relief from another man who dissembles at every turn, exercises no personal responsibility, shows contempt for the law and seeks to win at all costs.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him on Twitter, @Milbank.