Judge in Paul Manafort case says Robert Mueller is only interested in impeaching Donald Trump, not in alleged bank fraud
Judge TS Ellis said: ‘You really care about getting information Mr Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr Trump and lead to his prosecution or impeachment’
A federal judge has rebuked the special counsel investigating alleged collusion between Trump aides and Russia, for overstepping his bounds in a criminal case against the president’s former campaign manager.
Robert Mueller last year brought tax and bank fraud charges against Paul Manafort, the first indictment in the Russia investigation. Manafort maintains his innocence.
On Friday TS Ellis, a judge in the eastern district of Virginia, suggested that Mueller’s real motivation for pursuing Manafort was to compel him to “sing” against Trump.
“You don’t really care about Mr Manafort’s bank fraud,” the judge, reportedly losing his temper, challenged lawyers from the office of special counsel. “You really care about getting information Mr Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr Trump and lead to his prosecution or impeachment.”
The comments, at a tense court hearing in Alexandria, were a boost for Manafort’s lawyers who contend that the charges against him are outside Mueller’s mandate to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Ellis added: “I don’t see what relationship this indictment has with anything the special counsel is authorised to investigate.
“We don’t want anyone in this country with unfettered power. It’s unlikely you’re going to persuade me the special prosecutor has power to do anything he or she wants. The American people feel pretty strongly that no one has unfettered power.”
Manafort is facing charges in Virginia and Washington. The Virginia indictment alleges that he concealed tens of millions of dollars he earned advising pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine from the Internal Revenue Service, before Trump ran for president.
The other case accuses him of conspiring to launder money and failing to register as a foreign agent when he lobbied for the pro-Russia Ukrainian government. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Ellis withheld ruling on dismissal of the indictment. He asked the special counsel’s office to share privately with him a copy of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein’s August 2017 memo elaborating on the scope of Mueller’s Russia investigation. The current version has been heavily redacted, he said.
While speaking to the NRA at a conference in Dallas, Texas, on Friday, Trump read out Ellis’s remarks and said that he felt sympathy for Manafort, and agreed with Ellis about Mueller’s motivation.
“I’ve been saying that for a long time,” Trump said. “It is a witch hunt.”
Reading from an article on Ellis’ remarks, Trump said: “’None of that information has to do with information related to the Russian government coordination and the campaign of Donald Trump.’
“It doesn’t have anything to do,” Trump said. “It’s from years before. Then how does this have anything to do with the campaign, the judge asks? Let me tell you, folks, we’re all fighting battles, but I love fighting these battles.”
Trump called Manafort “a nice guy” but also said he was part of his campaign for “a very short period of time.”
“Literally for like, what? Like a couple months? Little period of time,” Trump said, adding that Manafort had also worked for Reagan, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Senator John McCain. “Does anybody say that? No. But he’s out there fighting.”
Earlier on Friday, as he left for the NRA conference, Trump said he would welcome an interview with Mueller.
“So I would love to speak,” he told reporters. “I would love to go. Nothing I want to do more, because we did nothing wrong. We ran a great campaign. We won easily.”
But he added: “I have to find that we’re going to be treated fairly, because everybody sees it now, and it is a pure witch-hunt. Right now, it’s a pure witch-hunt.”