A federal judge in Paul Manafort’s financial case challenged prosecutors Friday, questioning if the indictment’s aim is to help Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The hearing in Alexandria, Va., federal court was requested by the defense’s motion in a bid to dismiss a 32-count indictment against President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager on bank fraud and tax evasion charges.
Judge T.E. Ellis suggested the prosecution’s case was a search for information regarding the 2016 presidential campaign, and whether the case could provide information leading to Trump’s impeachment.
“I don’t see what relation this indictment has with what the special counsel is authorized to investigate,” Ellis said in court. “You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud. What you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment.
“You get somebody in a conspiracy and then you tighten the screws. I’ve been here a while, the vernacular is ‘to sing.'”
Ellis also questioned why Mueller’s office was pursuing bank fraud charges against Manafort, but gave an investigation of Trump attorney Michael Cohen to New York City prosecutors.
“Why in New York did you feel it was not necessary to keep that, but it was necessary to keep this bank fraud, which I think manifestly has nothing to do with the campaign?” Ellis asked Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben. “Why is New York different?”
When told that the Justice Department acted within the range of its authorization and “followed the money,” Ellis said he was skeptical of the idea that the Mueller team can follow any lead it chooses.
“What we don’t want in this country, we don’t want anyone with unfettered power,” Ellis responded. “It’s unlikely you’re going to persuade me the special counsel has unlimited powers to do anything her or she wants.”
Although the judge, an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan, was critical of the Justice Department’s latitude in pursuing Manafort, he didn’t dismiss the case. He did, however, interrupt Dreeben regularly, asking about the prosecution’s motives in trying Manafort.
Ellis also noted that the charges against Manafort predated Mueller’s appointment, and that no charges “had any relation to the campaign.”
Mueller’s legal team has been seeking information regarding potential Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign.
After Dreeben used three attempts to argue the government’s case against dismissing the indictment, Ellis, who admitted he “is not a fan of football,” used a phrase popular on the sports channel ESPN.
“I understand your argument, but c’mon, man!” he said, before saying he will rule on the dismissal request another day.
Manafort’s trial is scheduled to begin July 10.
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