Conspiracy Against The United States: What Does The Charge Against Paul Manafort Actually Mean?

What is "conspiracy against the United States," the criminal charge being faced by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and alleged co-conspirator Rick Gates?

As BBC News reports, it's a broad and wide-ranging crime that covers an array of different criminal activities. And strangely enough, it's not a crime that one person can commit on their own - it requires two or more people, all of whom will be charged should a grand jury find evidence that the crime was committed.

What Does It Mean?

Specifically, the law is laid out in Title 18, Chapter 19, Section 371 of the U.S. Code.

"If two or more persons either conspire to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose..."

The law is rather vague, so much so that Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft, in the case Hammerschmidt v. United States, provided some clarity about its meaning in 1924.

"To conspire to defraud the United States means primarily to cheat the Government out of property or money. But it also means to interfere with or obstruct one of its lawful governmental functions by deceit, craft or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest."

Paul Manafort makes his way through television cameras as he walks from Federal District Court in Washington.
[Image by Alex Brandon/AP Images]

Where Do Manafort And Gates Fit In?

According to CNN, Manafort and Gates spent years as lobbyists and political consultants working with Ukraine. During that time, according to the indictment against them, the pair earned millions of dollars. Using "scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts," the two allegedly laundered that money, living lavish lifestyles in the process.

What's more, the pair allegedly focused their political efforts on Russian-backed political parties and candidates in the country.

Specifically, according to Slate, the charges against the pair focus on three alleged situations.

  • Manafort's alleged tax evasion, and specifically, his alleged "hiding" of money overseas.
  • Manafort and Gates' failure to register as "agents of a foreign principal" for their work with Ukraine and its former president, Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych.
  • Manafort and Gates' alleged "repeated lies" to the feds about their work with Yanukovych.
How Serious Is The Charge?

Not particularly serious, according to Slate.

Usually, things like "conspiracy" and "treason" are mentioned in the same sentence. But in reality, treason -- the only crime mentioned in the Constitution -- is more serious and can even carry the death penalty. "Conspiracy against the United States," by comparison, carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern is quick to point out that the indictment against the men does not tie either of them to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"Nothing in the indictment indicates that Manafort and Gates colluded with Russia in order to sway the election."

Who Else Has Been Charged With This Crime?

Not anybody you're likely to have heard of. In the span of a few months between 2005 and 2006, two men were jailed under this statute: computer hacker Jeanson James Ancheta pleaded guilty to hacking computers using "botnets" and was sentenced to five years in prison. And in 2006, former Enron executive Jeff Skilling was found guilty of conspiracy, amid a handful of other charges, and sentenced to 24 years in prison -- reduced on appeal to 14 years.

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