Conspiracy against the United States is bad but not treason.

Is “Conspiracy Against the United States” As Bad As It Sounds?

Is “Conspiracy Against the United States” As Bad As It Sounds?

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Oct. 30 2017 11:50 AM

“Conspiracy Against the United States” Is Bad, but Not As Bad As It Sounds

Paul Manafort 2016
Paul Manafort.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort has been indicted on 12 counts involving money laundering and tax evasion. Manafort’s longtime business partner Rick Gates was also charged in the indictment, which was approved by a grand jury impaneled by special counsel Robert Mueller. Included among the charges is “conspiracy against the United States,” a dramatic and headline-grabbing accusation. Is that as serious as it sounds?

It’s certainly not good—but it also isn’t treason. The statute in question, 18 U.S.C. § 371, refers to two or more people who “conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof,” and actually act in furtherance of their conspiracy. The indictment alleges that Manafort and Gates “conspired to defraud the United States” by obstructing the work of the Justice and Treasury Departments. It adds that both men conspired “to commit offenses against the United States” and acted on their conspiracy.

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The indictment then specifies precisely what these conspiracies and actions were. First, Manafort’s tax evasion—his habit, exhaustively detailed in the indictment, of hiding money overseas. Second, Manafort and Gates’ failure to register as “agents of a foreign principal” for their work with Ukraine and its former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Third, Manafort and Gates’ repeated lies to the U.S. government regarding their work for Yanukovych.

According to the indictment, both men furthered this conspiracy through a series of actions including false tax filings, illicit lobbying on Ukraine’s behalf, and the wiring of unreported income from offshore accounts to pay for housing expenses, landscaping, and luxury goods. Manafort also allegedly purchased property using hidden income from overseas accounts, at least once with Gates’ help, and lied to banks in order to secure loans.

That’s serious stuff, no doubt, but it isn’t anything close to treason. Nothing in the indictment indicates that Manafort and Gates colluded with Russia in order to sway the election. Rather, Mueller has wisely used this statute to pull together various charges into one overarching theory of the case, one that views both men’s misdeeds as fundamentally intertwined. That’s how conspiracy statutes work: They allow prosecutors to charge multiple suspects for scheming to break the law, so long as one of them took an overt act to make their scheme reality. In this case, Manafort and Gates’ scheme allegedly involved deceiving and defrauding the United States government.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers the law and LGBTQ issues.