A federal judge on Tuesday rejected an attempt by Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign chairman, to get an indictment against him dismissed by claiming that special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment was flawed.
In a blow to Manafort’s defense, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that Mueller’s prosecution of the longtime political consultant on charges of money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent for Ukraine was “squarely” within the authority that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein granted to Mueller last May.
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“The indictment falls squarely within that portion of the authority granted to the Special Counsel that Manafort finds unobjectionable: the order to investigate ‘any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign,’” Jackson wrote.
“Manafort was, at one time, not merely ‘associated with,’ but the chairman of, the Presidential campaign, and his work on behalf of the Russia-backed Ukrainian political party and connections to other Russian figures are matters of public record,” the judge added in her 37-page ruling. “It was logical and appropriate for investigators tasked with the investigation of ‘any links’ between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign to direct their attention to him.”
Citing press reports that Manafort filed with the court discussing his activities abroad, Jackson suggested it would have been malpractice for Mueller not to have investigated him.
“Given the combination of his prominence within the campaign and his ties to Ukrainian officials supported by and operating out of Russia, as well as to Russian oligarchs, Manafort was an obvious person of interest,“ she wrote. “Given what was being said publicly, the Special Counsel would have been remiss to ignore such an obvious potential link between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.“
Manafort’s lawyers argued that a portion of Rosenstein’s order that gave Mueller the authority to pursue “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” gave the special counsel more authority than permitted under Justice Department regulations for such prosecutors.
Jackson, however, said Manafort’s arguments were not persuasive for several reasons. First, she said, the subjects that Manafort was indicted for the case she was overseeing were part of Mueller’s core focus, not some expansion of it. Second, she said, outsiders don’t have the authority to enforce the special counsel regulations, because they’re internal Justice Department policies. And third, she found that Rosenstein has validated the indictment through continuing consultation with and supervision of Mueller.
A spokesman for Manafort did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling. Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, has imposed a gag order limiting public comments by prosecutors, defense attorneys and Manafort.
Manafort’s defense team has appeared more hopeful about a similar motion to dismiss filed against another criminal case Mueller brought against him in Virginia on charges of bank fraud, tax evasion and failing to report foreign bank accounts.
The judge in that case, T.S. Ellis III, gave Manafort’s defense a much-needed boost earlier this month by expressing skepticism about Mueller’s authority to pursue charges with no obvious connection to Russia.
Ellis, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, seized on the fact that the alleged fraud in the Virginia case dated back to 2005, about a decade before the Trump campaign came into existence. That arguably makes the case more factually removed from Mueller’s central mandate.
Manafort could still lose his motion if Ellis agrees with Jackson that the special counsel regulations can’t be enforced by defendants or finds that Rosenstein approved an expansion of Mueller’s authority for the bank and tax fraud charges. Even if the judge does find a violation, it’s possible he won’t dismiss the case but will simply reassign it to federal prosecutors in Virginia.
Still, any ruling from Ellis that Mueller overstepped his authority is certain to be celebrated not only by Manafort, but also by Trump and his supporters. Indeed, after Ellis’ criticism of Mueller’s team at the hearing earlier this month, Trump seized on the statements, reading them aloud from the stage at a speech he was delivering in Texas.
Ellis has not yet issued a ruling on Manafort’s motion, but the judge set a deadline of this Friday for Mueller’s office to file with the court an August 2017 memo laying out the designated scope of the special counsel’s investigation. Ellis is not obliged to follow Jackson‘s ruling or her rationale, but her opinion could influence his and he is likely to explain any distinction or disagreement with her decision.
The Virginia case is currently set for trial on July 10, with a Washington trial for Manafort set to follow on Sept. 17.