After expressing concerns earlier this year about the indictment of President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort on tax and bank fraud charges, a federal judge in Virginia ruled on Tuesday that the case – seemingly unrelated to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections – could still be brought by the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, though the judge raised questions about the probe.
“In sum, dismissal of the Superseding Indictment on the grounds urged by defendant is not warranted here,” Judge T.S. Ellis III ruled, in a 31 page decision issued late on Tuesday afternoon.
Back in an earlier court hearing, Judge Ellis had given supporters of President Trump hope that he might dismiss the case against Manafort – but despite some concerns about the Special Counsel probe – the judge said the prosecution should go forward, as he made clear he understands what is at work, and who is the target.
“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 (Manafort), and that defendant’s prosecution is part of that larger plan,” Ellis wrote in a footnote in his decision.
“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 added.
“Although these kinds of high-pressure prosecutorial tactics are neither uncommon nor illegal, they are distasteful,” the judge wrote.
While expressing some misgivings, the judge said the indictment of Manafort was supported by the orders given to the Special Counsel, “because the investigation involved potential links between a Trump campaign official — the defendant — and the Russian government via the Russian-backed Ukrainian President.”
“No interpretive gymnastics are necessary to determine that the investigation at issue here falls within this category of allegations described in the August 2 Scope Memorandum,” the judge added.
During court arguments on the motion by Manafort’s lawyers to dismiss the case, Judge Ellis created a stir by seemingly raising tough questions about the underlying investigation, even drawing words of support from the President.
While ruling against Manafort, the judge engaged in open hand wringing about the Special Counsel probe, wrapping up his decision with a plea of his own.
“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. 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.”
In his 31 page decision, Judge Ellis – a Reagan appointee – embraced an idea that Democrats had floated previously, establishing a special blue ribbon panel to investigate the 2016 election.
“A better mechanism for addressing concerns about election interference would be the creation of a bipartisan commission with subpoena power and the authority to investigate all issues related to alleged interference in the 2016 Presidential election,” the judge wrote in a footnote.
“If crimes were uncovered during the course of the commission’s investigation, those crimes could be referred to appropriate existing authorities within the DOJ,” Ellis added.