Special counsel Robert Mueller scored a victory in federal court in Virginia Tuesday when a federal judge dismissed a motion by indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to have his superseding indictment for crimes, including bank and tax fraud, tossed out.
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Manafort had argued that Mueller had exceeded the scope of his mandate.
Judge T.S. Ellis said in his ruling that the May 17, 2017 order establishing the probe of Russian election interference “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,” the judge said.
This much-anticipated ruling comes nearly two months after the same judge gave Mueller’s legal team a verbal shellacking, repeatedly questioning the broad scope of the investigation into whether Russia and the Trump campaign colluded before the 2016 presidential election.
His comments at that hearing caught the attention of even President Trump, who has been no fan of some federal judges. Trump, not long afterward, praised Ellis, saying he was “really something very special...he's a respected person."
Judge Ellis, in his decision Tuesday, found that the Acting Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, properly appointed the special counsel, and Mueller sought out links to Russians when investigating Manafort, noting, “the fact that [then-Ukrainian president Viktor] Yanukovych was a strongly pro-Russian President warranted the investigation here.”
But Judge Ellis’ decision was not without criticism of the current probe.
And despite ruling against Manafort, Judge Ellis returned to that line of criticism against the prosecution, questioning the true motive behind the probe as he first did in early May, writing in one footnote Tuesday: “Given the investigation’s focus on President Trump’s campaign, even a blind person can see that the true target of the Special Counsel’s investigation is President Trump, not defendant, and that defendant’s prosecution is part of that larger plan.”
The judge repeated his criticism that Mueller was escalating the charges against Manafort to pressure him into providing evidence against President Trump.
“Specifically, the charges against defendant are intended to induce defendant to cooperate with the Special Counsel by providing evidence against the President or other members of the campaign,’ the judge said. Although these kinds of high-pressure prosecutorial tactics are neither uncommon nor illegal, they are distasteful.”
Attorneys who have argued before Ellis from both sides of the legal divide have told ABC News -- none wanting to do so on the record for fear of reprisal – that the judge, known for his caustic wit, probing questions, and stem-winding tales, can be unpredictable and at times sides with the government only after savaging the government in court.
Known as “Tim” to his friends, the irascible jurist – a Reagan appointee – had no judicial experience when he was appointed to the bench in 1987. Ellis had been a civil defense attorney for two decades.
Manafort – who has pleaded not guilty to all charges - goes to trial before Ellis on July 25 and is also being tried in Washington, D.C., as part of Mueller’s Russia probe -- a trial scheduled to start in September.