Conservatives have been asking one particular question about Robert Mueller’s case against Paul Manafort for months: What the hell, exactly, does any of this have to do with the Russia investigation?
From court filings, we can safely assume that Trump’s former campaign manager was involved in some shady stuff over the years. The case against him includes charges of tax fraud, illegal bank transactions, failure to register as a foreign agent, and all kinds of nasty stuff. We’re going to go out on a limb and predict that Manafort is probably guilty of at least some of it, although we could be mistaken.
The problem is…all of this occurred years before the 2016 election. So why is Mueller – the special prosecutor appointed to look into Russian interference in the 2016 election – making this his number one priority?
For Judge T.S. Ellis, who is presiding over a portion of the federal case against Manafort, the question goes beyond one of political concern and into the realm of jurisdiction. In a hearing on Friday, Ellis said he was skeptical of Mueller’s motives in the prosecution of Manafort and quite curious as to where the special counsel retained the authority to bring these charges against him.
“You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” the judge told prosecutor Michael Dreeben. The judge surmised that the sole priority of the special counsel, and Mueller’s only reason for bringing this case against Manafort, was to bring such pressure on him that he would flip on his former client and provide material leading to Trump’s “prosecution of impeachment.”
“That’s what you’re really interested in,” Judge Ellis said.
The judge said he was concerned that the case against Manafort was in excess of the authorization given to Mueller when he was appointed.
“I don’t see what relationship this indictment has with anything the special counsel is authorized to investigate,” he said. He went further, saying that he was deeply disturbed with Mueller’s “unfettered power,” insisting there was nothing in the May 2017 appointment order that authorized him to bring charges that stem from a decade ago.
It could be that the judge is wrong on Mueller’s scope of investigative power. He doesn’t know, and that’s part of the problem. NONE of us know, because the authorization orders remain highly redacted. The judge has requested that the prosecutors provide him with an unredacted authorization order so that he can determine whether or not Mueller is still acting under his proper authority; the special counsel’s office says that such a disclosure would be harmful to national security. Without that disclosure, though, they may find their case against Manafort crumbling to dust in their hands.
It’s impossible to know where this case is headed, but if Judge Ellis cripples the case against Manafort, Mueller will lose what we can only assume is his biggest point of leverage against the president. It will be a striking legal blow against the #Resistance and confirm once and for all that this witch hunt strayed from firm constitutional ground a long time ago.