At first, it was all by the book.
Paul Manafort was staring down 7.5 years in federal prison after his March sentencing, and faced a criminal trial in New York City on separate fraud charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
Vance’s office agreed with Manafort to hold off on arraigning the 70-year-old GOP operative until he entered federal prison, at which point Manafort agreed to be moved to New York City.
But in May, after Vance had put in a formal request for Manafort to be moved to New York State custody at Rikers Island, something strange happened. His attorney sent a fiery letter to federal prison warden Vicky Moser demanding that Manafort stay in federal custody, accusing Vance, a Democrat, of playing “politics” with the case.
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen forwarded the letter to Vance, whose office responded angrily to the accusations, but expressed no preference for where Manafort was to be detained so long as he was able to attend state proceedings.
In conversations with TPM, former DOJ officials expressed bewilderment that a top DOJ official would get involved in a specific inmate’s incarceration, saying it suggested that — at a minimum — Manafort is receiving special treatment.
“The idea that the number two person in the Department of Justice would touch this kind of issue is beyond laughable,” former federal prosecutor and white-collar criminal defense attorney Jim Walden told TPM.
Eli Honig, a former federal prosecutor at Lowenstein Sandler, called the situation “very unusual – perhaps entirely unprecedented.”
The Deputy Attorney General is charged with managing the day-to-day operations of the Justice Department. It’s not clear why Rosen would get involved in Manafort’s case.
“The idea that the Deputy Attorney General would get involved in it seems especially extraordinary,” said former U.S. Attorney Barb McQuade.
It’s not clear what motivated Manafort attorney Todd Blanche to send his May 17 letter demanding that Manafort stay in federal custody, or why he did so one day after the Senate confirmed Rosen as deputy attorney general.
Blanche did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
In the letter, the attorney demands that Manafort be kept out of New York City for health reasons. He also calls Vance’s prosecution “politics” and refers to potential pre-trial detention on Rikers Island as “further punish[ment].”
Rosen attached Blanche’s letter in a message to Vance, asking “if your office has a response or would otherwise like to comment.”
Vance called Blanche’s claims “gratuitous” in a letter responding to Rosen, and added that Manafort faces charges on “New York state crimes related to conduct for which he has not been held accountable by virtue of his federal prosecutions.”
In a statement, a senior Justice Department official echoed Blanche’s argument regarding Manafort’s health.
“The Department requested the views of New York prosecutors, who did not object to Mr. Manafort’s attorneys’ proposal,” the official said. “In light of New York’s position, and Mr. Manafort’s unique health and safety needs, the Department determined to err on the side of caution by keeping Mr. Manafort in federal custody during the pendency of his state proceedings.”
Walden told TPM that “Rikers is obviously a tough place, but there are plenty of tough state prisons across the country and prisoners get sent there every single day of the week.”
“The idea that [DOJ officials] picked Manafort out of a hat seems too silly to even discuss,” he added.
McQuade suggested that there would be little reason to keep Manafort in federal, and not state, custody apart from health concerns.
“It gives the appearance of a special favor,” she said.