Login Register Logout Edit Account search
Manafort Is Not Guilty

Never forget that justice is an afterthought in our criminal justice system.

Literally. It’s not until jurors are ready to go talk amongst themselves that they’re even told what it is they’re supposed to have been listening for all along. But things hardly ever get that far, of course. If a prosecutor takes aim at you, your life will be destroyed long before the vestigial ritual of jury deliberation.

Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager for President Trump, is looking at a long stretch in prison. He’s been convicted already in the press, all because of a hunch. Well, a hunch, and bunch of presumptuous paperwork laws — the Bank Secrecy Act, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, etc. — which are based not in any sound theory of republican government, but on the brute power of our Leviathan.

Now, Robert Mueller’s hunch about foreign coordination is probably a good one. I share it. In the campaign, the mercurial Trump held only two positions consistently: hostility to trade and openness to Vladimir Putin. The first is explicable by Trump’s strong prejudice against any proposition that is not self-evident. The second is peculiar, and a mystery. But even the worst case — Trump and Putin steady dabbing over that trove of Hillary emails — matters only if Trump promised Putin something. A meeting to collect dirt on a rival? Legit. A promise of some official favor in exchange for the dirt? Impeach away, boys. My bet? It’s unrelated. Maybe a Putin proxy gave DJT a massive forgivable loan some time ago.

Whatever the actual reason, Trump’s consistent regard for Putin is, of course, well worth exploring. Is that justification for destroying Manafort? Some would point to his client list — Viktor Yanukovych, Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos — and say yes. But if we’re serious, that doesn’t make him any more of a villain than your run-of-the-mill defense attorney.

Also, Mueller’s hunch has nothing to do with the charges against Manafort. Rather, his charges are meant to coerce Manafort into spilling hypothetical beans. They’re not worth prosecuting in themselves. The things Manafort is accused of doing don’t even amount to a crime, not in the real sense of the word. That is, it’s a fake crime, an utterly illegitimate exercise of the sovereign power of the United States government.

Your first clue to the silliness is that the crime has no victim. It is said, rather, to be a conspiracy against all of the United States of America. Andrew McCarthy, in his best column this year, breaks down the shortcomings in the legal case. My point is much more general — this whole business is out of bounds, as surely as Ukraine is far beyond the boundaries of the United States.

If, like LeBron James, you decide to leave your blasted homeland and take your talents to warmer climes, that’s your right. If your new employer happens to own the Miami Heat or be a corrupt Russian puppet, well, that’s on your conscience. But that boss’s tyrannies will inevitably pale in comparison to the hubris of the United States government, which pretends to the authority to rightfully tax Americans wherever they roam.

No other serious nation does this. And hardly anybody in this one cares, as the taxation plight of ex-pats and backpackers rarely ranks a mention. Now, even our overbearing government doesn’t try to put the squeeze on foreign corporations, whose domiciliary shapeshifting powers are simply too elusive to contend with. But you as a nonfictional person — go work for some gangster-politician abroad without giving the feds a taste of the action, and just see how Don Sam reacts.

Yet this issue — this single, somewhat obscure issue — has more bearing on the legitimacy of the United States government than any other. Simply put: what is the source of the authority of the government of the United States of America, or any other government? It’s the consent of the governed, of course. (The only alternative being the divine source, but that line of thought still leads you to divine sanction for two rebellions: Martin Luther’s and our own. But that’s another column, and it still brings you back to divine consent for popular government.)

The right to vote is no proxy for consent. As we are reminded incessantly, we have a long history in this country of denying the franchise to non-white, non-male, unpropertied so-and-sos. Even now, we deny the franchise to people convicted of importing fish in improper Styrofoam containers. We might deny it to Manaforts. But we’ve never made this the basis for revolution, for throwing out all the acts of earlier, less democratic governments. We presume consent.

On what basis? On the same basis that a man and woman shacking up becomes a common law marriage. Y’all cohabitated, commingled, and willingly got all up in each other’s business, and nobody headed for the door. Therefore, y’all might be splitting now, but you’re both on the hook for that unpaid rent-a-fridge.

This is, more or less, the glory of America. We are not sovereign citizens. We are abused wives, but we choose to put up with it. America — love it or leave it, they say, never guessing how profoundly right they are. We stay. Slap us again.

Or, if the fire of righteousness burns in us, then our claim is the Mosaic one: let my people go. We may have no ground to denounce the Egyptians and their luxury, to demand they stop eating their fancy leeks and garlic, but we do have a right to demand an out, a path to the Red Sea. If I reject this system, then either you let me leave, or you are a tyrant, deserving plagues.

Plato reached this conclusion. In Crito, Socrates goes willingly to his death sentence, not because the rubes who condemned him were right about the morals of the youth, but because he had consented to remain under the jurisdiction of Athens. This is the origin of social contract theory. And this is why the banking paperwork laws used against Manafort are such abominations. You don’t get to tell a man how to conduct his affairs that have nothing to do with your little city-state. (This is just as true, of course, for Trump’s trade negotiators, wagging their dumb fingers at our best friends.)

Our Puritan forbears reached the same conclusion as Socrates, the first boatload of them anyway, deciding that they had the ecclesiastical right and responsibility to split from the existing program and determine their own affairs. It’s worth remembering that their antagonist, the Church of England, was at least modest enough to base its own claims to authority on territory.

Our present oppressor knows of no such restriction.

Sign Up to receive Our Latest Updates! Register