Judge questions whether Paul Manafort case should be part of Mueller's Russia probe

A U.S. federal judge in Virginia has sharply questioned the scope of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's prosecutorial powers as part of legal proceedings over President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort's efforts to dismiss an indictment against him.

Friday hearing concerned tax fraud allegations about Manafort, who is also charged separately in D.C.

President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, left, arrives with his attorney Kevin Downing at U.S. District Court for a motions hearing Friday in Alexandria, Va. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A federal judge on Friday asked skeptical questions about special counsel Robert Mueller's authority to bring charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on tax and bank fraud charges.

Manafort's lawyers argued at a hearing in Alexandria, Va., that the charges are far afield from Mueller's mandate to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether any collusion occurred.

Judge T.S. Ellis III said Mueller should not have "unfettered power" in his Russia probe. 

"I don't see what relationship this indictment has with what the special counsel is investigating," Ellis, a Ronald Reagan appointee, told government lawyers at Friday's hearing.

The Virginia indictment alleges Manafort hid tens of millions of dollars he earned advising pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine from the Internal Revenue Service, all occurring years before Donald Trump ran for president.

Under questioning from Ellis, government lawyers admitted that Manafort had been under investigation for years in the Eastern District of Virginia before Mueller was ever appointed special counsel. And Ellis said it was implausible to think that the charges against Manafort, which primarily concern his business dealings and tax returns from about 2005 through 2015, could have a real connection to Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

Ellis suggested the real reason Mueller is pursuing Manafort is to pressure him to "sing" against Trump, though he also noted that such a strategy is a "time-honoured practice" for prosecutors and not necessarily illegal.

"You really care about wanting information you could get from Mr. Manafort that would relate to Mr. Trump and lead to his prosecution, or impeachment, or whatever," Ellis said.

Judge asks about probe's budget, scope

Government lawyer Michael Dreeben said the special counsel's mandate is broad, and that Manafort fits within that jurisdiction because of his connections to both the Trump campaign and to Ukrainian and Russian officials.

"We needed to understand and explore those relationships and follow the money where it led," Dreeben said.

Dreeben also argued that the Justice Department has broad discretion to set its own rules for what should be designated to the special counsel's jurisdiction, and that a judge has no role trying to regulate it.

"We are the Justice Department," Dreeben said of the special counsel's office. "We are not separate from the Justice Department."

That argument provoked Ellis's ire to an extent and prompted him to question the wisdom of granting unfettered power to a special counsel with a $10 million US budget.

"I'm sure you're sensitive to the fact that the American people feel pretty strongly about no one having unfettered power," Ellis said.

He asked Dreeben whether the special counsel had already blown through its $10 million budget; Dreeben declined to answer.

Manafort's lawyer, Kevin Downing, has argued that a special counsel should be tightly constrained in how it operates. He noted that the law authorizing the special counsel was passed to replace the old independent counsel law, which was derided for allowing overbroad, yearslong investigations during the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

Downing has argued that the charges should be dismissed if Mueller lacked authority to bring them. Ellis, though, suggested another remedy would be to simply hand the case back to regular federal prosecutors.

Ellis withheld ruling on the motion and will issue a written ruling at a later date.

He also asked the special counsel's office to share privately with him a copy of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein's August 2017 memo elaborating on the scope of Mueller's Russia probe. He said the current version he has has been heavily redacted.

The Virginia case had been scheduled for trial in July.

Manafort is also charged in the District of Columbia, accused of conspiring against the United States, conspiring to launder money and failing to register as a foreign agent when he lobbied for the pro-Russia Ukrainian government.

Manafort's lawyers made similar arguments seeking dismissal to the judge in the District. She has also not yet ruled on the motion.

The courtroom development came as Trump again told reporters he'd be eager to speak to Mueller as part of the probe. But he told them before departing for the National Rifle Association conference in Dallas that we would need to ensure that he'd be "treated fairly."

Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn on Friday, Trump again called the investigation into whether members of his campaign and transition team colluded with Russia a "witch hunt."

With files from Reuters