Some news is transient. Everyone remembers Nixon firing Archibald Cox and fighting to keep those tapes private and all the rest, but few remember that his vice president, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign not long before all the Watergate hell broke loose. That was a matter of extortion. When he was governor of Maryland, Agnew took bribes for state favors – lots of bribes – actual bags of cash. He continued that in the White House. He got caught. He pleaded “no contest” and left the administration, and Washington, and public life. Watergate was good to him. Few remember he was a jerk. But few consider he was a jerk who was going to be the next president the next year. He’d still be taking bags of cash – so America dodged the bullet there. Or he was removed because many knew what was coming. Nixon would be gone and the next guy had to be squeaky clean and kind of boring. The next guy had to be Gerald Ford… and was. That was the real news and the Agnew resignation was just a blip. That happened, but so did so much else.
There are news stories like that, that flash and are then forgotten. One of them might be this:
Paul Manafort, who once served as President Trump’s campaign chairman, was sentenced to nearly four years in prison Thursday for cheating on his taxes and bank fraud – a far lesser sentence than the roughly 20 years he had faced under federal sentencing guidelines.
U.S. District Court Judge T. S. Ellis III called that guidelines calculation “excessive” and sentenced the longtime lobbyist instead to 47 months in prison.
Apparently aware that he might be criticized for not imposing a longer prison term, Ellis told a packed courtroom in Alexandria, Va. that anyone who didn’t think the punishment was tough enough should “go and spend a day, a week in jail or in the federal penitentiary. He has to spend 47 months.”
So back off. He was punishing the guy. Just shut up. But this was the conflict:
Prosecutors have painted Manafort as an incorrigible cheat who must be made to understand the seriousness of his wrongdoing. Manafort contends he is mere collateral damage in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election.
Judge Ellis agreed. More than once during the trial he blew up at the prosecution, berating them and telling them he knew what they were up to – they were really out to get Trump, not Manafort at all. Yes, he knew what they were REALLY up to and he didn’t like it one little bit, and he never liked that Mueller fellow anyway, and no, he would not recuse himself. No one was surprised by this sentence. It was just odd:
At a trial last year, Manafort was found guilty of hiding millions he made lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian politicians in overseas bank accounts, then falsifying his finances to get loans when his patrons lost power. Prosecutors highlighted his lavish lifestyle, saying his crimes were used to pay for high-end clothes and multiple properties.
The judge noted that he must consider the entirety of Manafort’s life when issuing a sentence, saying letters show Manafort has been “a good friend” and a “generous person” but that that “can’t erase the criminal activity.” Manafort’s tax crimes, the judge said, were “a theft of money from everyone who pays taxes.”
But the guy deserves a break:
Ellis expressed some sympathy for the GOP consultant, who had worked on the presidential campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, becoming a Washington insider and high-flying consultant for hire.
“He’s lived an otherwise blameless life,” Ellis said. The judged noted Manafort has no past criminal history and “earned the admiration of a number of people” who wrote letters to the court.
And of course Putin likes him, but none of this matters much:
Manafort has already spent nine months in jail – meaning the sentence imposed Thursday could end in less than three years, with an additional reduction for good behavior. Manafort was also ordered to pay a fine of $50,000.
But he still faces sentencing for related conspiracy charges in a case in D.C. federal court – a case in which he could receive an additional 10-year prison term. Manafort is set to be sentenced in that case next week, and that judge will decide if the sentences will run simultaneously, or staggered.
That judge is less eccentric. This story isn’t over. And, when it is over, it may not matter much. Like Spiro Agnew, Paul Manafort seems to be a secondary figure in a larger drama that’s not about him at all – “an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two, advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, deferential, glad to be of use, politic, cautious, and meticulous, full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse, at times, indeed, almost ridiculous – almost, at times, the Fool.”
That seems about right. Manafort is Polonius, not Hamlet, and Trump is certainly no brooding Hamlet, so move on folks, nothing to see here. The big news story of the day was secondary stuff and will soon be forgotten, as will this one:
Democrats engineered a House vote broadly condemning hatred on Thursday in an attempt to move past alleged anti-Semitic comments by a freshman Muslim congresswoman – a battle that has torn the party apart and stymied attempts to present a unified agenda.
The 407-to-23 vote capped days of frustration and anger over the comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that have overshadowed Democratic policies – both legislation and investigations of President Trump – and raised questions about whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could keep her fractious caucus together.
But she got it done. This was bold statement. Hate is bad!
The nation yawned, but this was hard work:
Even crafting the generic resolution against bigotry proved difficult for Democrats on Thursday, after some groups objected to being omitted from an initial version. The resolution was revised shortly before the vote to add Latinos, Asian Americans and LGBT people to a list of groups subject to hate.
The resolution condemned anti-Semitism and discrimination against Muslims in equal measure, a shift from a draft circulated Monday that rebuked only anti-Semitism. Neither mentioned Omar nor her comments specifically.
“It’s not about her,” Pelosi said of Omar at a news conference. “It’s about these forms of hatred.”
So it’s about everything, and thus about nothing in particular:
Republicans mocked the Democrats and their internal struggles in trying to respond to Omar. Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) described the resolution as something that “all of us should’ve learned in kindergarten: Be nice.”
“How long does it take to figure out, just don’t hate? How many pages does it take to cite ill and evil? Evil is evil,” Collins said.
Collins spoke too soon:
On the vote, Democrats were unified, but Republicans splintered. Reps. Lee Zeldin (N.Y.) and Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the GOP conference chairwoman, said the resolution should have dealt only with anti-Semitism. Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.) and others objected to language dealing with law enforcement profiling, and Rep. Mo Brooks (Ala.) said he was “shocked” that the measure “refused to similarly condemn discrimination against Caucasian Americans and Christians.”
Hey, someone has to defend the lonely few white Christians left these days. Someone has to stand up for these heroic few, not just Donald Trump and David Duke – and for policemen trying to do their heroic jobs when every single black person in the nation wants to gun them down and kill them right now. Republicans had won the day, as the Democrats had at each other and then came out with their “be nice to everyone” resolution, and then they blew it with their own nonsense. And, as there’s nothing new here, this big news story will be just one more little blip too.
And all of it missed the point:
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D.-Minn.) has drawn attention – and criticism – for her statements about Israel. Many people, including top lawmakers, have condemned Omar’s comments as anti-Semitic and called on her to apologize. But she has also received messages of support from members of the Jewish community, who are critical of Israel’s policies and worry that the blowback against Omar will stifle debate.
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for Israel to pull out of the West Bank, wrote that critiques of Israel like Omar’s are essential:
“It has never been more important to be able to distinguish between the critique — even the harshest critique – of a state’s policies (Israel,) and discrimination against a people (Jews),” she said. “Israel does not represent all Jews. Not all Jews support Israel. Speaking out for Palestinian human rights and their yearning for freedom is in no way related to anti-Semitism, though the Israeli government does its best to obscure that.”
That’s worth discussing, but that wasn’t discussed. The real action was elsewhere:
The White House is privately ramping up pressure on undecided Republicans to limit defections ahead of the Senate vote on President Trump’s emergency declaration – even as the administration has yet to tell Congress which military projects would be tapped to pay for Trump’s border wall.
These were threats. Side with the White House on this – vote to give this president the power to bypass Congress and assume its core function himself, to decide what money gets spent where. Congress has voted down his ideas, over and over again. Do it. Step aside – and don’t ask questions about what money is about to be shifted across town. That’s none of your business, and that’s this:
The vote expected next week is on a resolution to nullify Trump’s Feb. 15 declaration of a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, which allows him to access $3.6 billion now designated for construction projects at military installations in numerous states and overseas. Trump wants to use that money for border barriers, after Congress refused to give him all the wall funding he sought.
In recent days, the White House has increased its efforts to count votes and persuade fence-sitting GOP senators, according to two Senate Republicans who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the administration’s efforts. Undecided senators have received calls from the White House, and the message, according to one of the senators, is clear: Trump is taking names and noticing who opposes him – particularly if you are running for reelection next year.
Beware of the Ides of March and so much more:
Many Senate Republicans say that they would like more information before they decide whether to vote to protect Trump’s emergency declaration, such as legal rationales for the president’s action or whether a military project in their home state would be affected.
“I’m not aware that anybody has seen it yet,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, referring to a list of military projects. “I think there would be a lot of our members who will be concerned about voting on this before they’ve seen that.”
This is a news story that is more than a blip:
GOP senators on Thursday were discussing whether they could revise the disapproval resolution to constrain the emergency powers available to presidents. At the same time, House Democrats angry about the administration’s plans to redirect money to the wall without congressional approval were threatening to write new restrictions into upcoming legislation to limit the Pentagon’s ability to move money around.
But the problem is immediate too:
Four Republican senators – Rand Paul (Ky.), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) – have announced plans to vote for the Democrats’ disapproval resolution overturning the emergency declaration, which would give it the needed support to pass the Senate.
In addition to those four, other GOP senators have expressed serious reservations about supporting the declaration. Many view it as an unprecedented intrusion into their constitutional authority over federal spending, with potential to set a dangerous precedent for future Democratic presidents.
There is that, but there are simple practical considerations:
The Pentagon is planning to tap $1 billion in leftover funds from military pay and pension accounts to help President Donald Trump pay for his long-sought border wall, a top Senate Democrat said Thursday.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told The Associated Press, “It’s coming out of military pay and pensions – $1 billion. That’s the plan.”
Durbin said the funds are available because Army recruitment is down and a voluntary early military retirement program is being underutilized.
The development comes as Pentagon officials are seeking to minimize the amount of wall money that would come from military construction projects that are so cherished by lawmakers.
So this is a tradeoff. Keep the new barracks or that new long runway and cut pay and pensions instead, which is now possible:
The Army missed its recruiting goal this year, falling short by about 6,500 soldiers, despite pouring an extra $200 million into bonuses and approving some additional waivers for bad conduct or health issues.
Congress also appropriated money to give members of the military incentive to take early retirement, but enrollment in the program is coming in well under expectations.
“This is pay that would have gone to Army recruits that we can’t recruit,” Durbin said. “So there’s a ‘savings’ because we can’t recruit. The other part was they offered a voluntary change in military pensions, and they overestimated how many people would sign up for it.”
So this will work, if recruitment doesn’t snap back to normal one day, and if no one applies for those pensions this year or next, and that is the plan. That’s simple, but nothing is simple:
The Pentagon is planning to transfer money from various accounts into a fund dedicated to drug interdiction, with the money then slated to be redirected for border barriers and other purposes, but more attention has been paid to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to tap up to $3.6 billion from military construction projects to pay for the wall.
Senators are increasingly uneasy ahead of voting next week because they don’t know exactly where the money to build the wall will come from and if it will postpone military projects in their home states.
Vice President Mike Pence told senators during their meeting a week ago that he would get back to them with an update. But senators said they don’t yet have a response from the administration.
“It’s a concern,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Of course it is. Paul Manafort doesn’t matter. He’s the Spiro Agnew of this moment in this presidency – and Ilhan Omar doesn’t matter much either – the Democrats will work this out and all of that will be forgotten too. But no one is going to forget Trump’s wall. He won’t let them. He’s no brooding Hamlet. He’s Ahab, and now he has his white whale. That’s a news story for the ages.