(CN) — A federal judge in Virginia on Tuesday evening rejected a move by President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman to have charges brought against him by the special counsel in the Russia investigation thrown out.
The decision by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III is a setback for Paul Manafort in his bid to beat back the multiple tax and bank fraud charges Special Counsel Robert Mueller has brought against him.
But Ellis nevertheless said his conclusion “should not be read as approval of the practice of appointing Special Counsel to prosecute cases of alleged high-level misconduct.”
“This case is a reminder that ultimately, our system of checks and balances and limitations on each branch’s powers, although exquisitely designed, ultimately works only if people of virtue, sensitivity, and courage, not affected by the winds of public opinion, choose to work within the confines of the law,” Ellis wrote. “Let us hope that the people in charge of this prosecution, including the Special Counsel and the Assistant Attorney General, are such people. Although this case will continue, those involved should be sensitive to the danger unleashed when political disagreements are transformed into partisan prosecutions.”
Manafort maintained Mueller exceeded his authority because the case was unrelated to Russian election interference.
Prosecutors hit back, arguing that Mueller was within his authority, citing an August 2017 memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The memo shows Rosenstein authorized Mueller to investigate Manafort’s Ukrainian work and related financial crimes in line with his mandate to look into “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”
And, Ellis said, it is “undisputed” that [Manafort] was directly associated with the campaign from March to August 2016.
The “longstanding antagonism” between Ukraine and Russia is “still underway” as well, he noted so the call to investigate Manafort as a part of Mueller’s probe is logical.
Mueller’s appointment does specifically state that “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” are to be investigated.
While “at first glance” Ellis said Manafort’s argument suggesting the multiple bank and tax fraud counts he faces in Virginia do not involve election interference, that argument also fails, Ellis explained.
Manafort “misunderstands” the structure of Mueller’s appointment order and the difference between Special Counsel’s investigative authority and its prosecutorial authority, Ellis said.
“The [appointment order] does not limit the Special Counsel’s prosecution authority to federal crimes concerning election interference or collusion; rather, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes that arise out of his authorized investigation. And the crimes charged in the Superseding Indictment clearly arise out of the Special Counsel’s investigation into the payments defendant allegedly received from Russian-backed leaders and pro-Russian political officials,” Ellis wrote.
More specifically, Mueller “followed the money paid by pro-Russian officials to [Manafort].”
As a result, Mueller can properly claim to have found evidence that the former campaign chairman was “deliberately” hiding these payments from U.S. authorities by disguising them as loans from offshore corporate entities before finally “depositing the payments in offshore accounts and using those accounts to make payments to purchase and to make improvements to U.S. real estate,” the opinion states.
Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, Ellis said even if the May appointment order was somehow invalidated, the August 2 memo outlined the scope correctly.
That memo provides all the detail needed outlining Mueller’s authority to probe crimes Manafort may have committed “arising out of payments he received from the Ukrainian government before and during the tenure of President Viktor Yanukovych”
“No interpretive gymnastics are necessary…” Ellis wrote.
To be sure, the judge explained, Mueller’s authority was not a “blank check” as the defense attorneys alleged after the indictment was issued.
“In this regard, the Special Counsel is not entitled to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct that is entirely incidental to, or disconnected from, the specific factual statement of matters to be investigated; rather, the Special Counsel is entitled to investigate only those matters that arise in the usual or regular course or order’ of investigating the matters included in the specific factual statement,” Ellis wrote.