Trump's legal team thinks unlikely developments in Paul Manafort's case could flip Mueller's investigation on its head

Alex Wong/Getty ImagesRobert Mueller.
  • A federal judge in Virginia could dismiss one of the indictments against Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, brought by the special counsel Robert Mueller.
  • If that happens, President Donald Trump’s lawyers are considering using the decision to make the case that the Russia investigation as a whole is illegitimate.
  • Trump’s lawyers are particularly interested in US District Judge T.S. Ellis III’s suggestion last week that prosecutors charged Manafort to get him to flip against Trump.
  • A source with direct knowledge of the legal team’s thinking said Trump’s lawyers were keen on seeing “how true” and “how real” that assertion is to help them determine “the good faith of the special counsel and ultimately the legitimacy of the investigation.”

A federal judge in Virginia is weighing whether to dismiss a criminal case against Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign, brought by the special counsel Robert Mueller. If he tosses out the case, Trump’s lawyers are considering using the decision to cast the Russia investigation as a whole as illegitimate, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the legal team’s thought process.

Manafort is the subject of two indictments from Mueller’s office. One, brought in Virginia, charges him with tax and bank fraud connected to his lobbying work for the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia interests in Ukraine.

While that indictment against Manafort does not relate directly to Trump, one person said the president’s lawyers were particularly interested in US District Judge T.S. Ellis III’s suggestion last week that prosecutors brought charges against Manafort to pressure him to flip against Trump.

Trump’s lawyers view the judge’s comments as “very damaging” to Mueller’s argument and as the primary factor that will help the legal team determine “whether or not the special counsel’s investigation is legitimate,” said this person, who requested anonymity so as to not get ahead of legal proceedings.

Manafort’s lawyers’ push for the case’s dismissal hinges on the argument that because the crimes do not directly relate to Mueller’s core mandate – investigating whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow – he was not authorised to charge Manafort with them.

At the center of the debate is a memo that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sent to Mueller three months after appointing him.

A redacted copy of the memo released last month says Rosenstein authorised Mueller to investigate Manafort’s contacts with Russian officials during the campaign, as well as whether he committed any crimes “arising out of payments he received from the Ukrainian government before and during the tenure of President Viktor Yanukovych.”

Ellis ordered Mueller’s team last week to turn over an unredacted copy of the memo so he can determine whether the special counsel was authorised to indict Manafort in the Virginia case. Business Insider previously reported that Trump’s lawyers were “anxious” for Ellis’ final decision on the matter.

The president has long cast doubt on the merits of the Russia investigation, calling it a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.”

How the Manafort ruling could apply to Trump’s case

If Ellis determines that Mueller was not properly authorised to charge Manafort in the Virginia case, Trump’s lawyers also plan to dig into whether the decision covers Trump with respect to his status in the Russia investigation, according to one person with direct knowledge of the Trump team’s thought process.

Trump is the focus of an obstruction-of-justice case Mueller has been building since last May, shortly after the president fired FBI Director James Comey.

Trump suggested to NBC’s Lester Holt that “this Russia thing” was a factor in his decision.

The special counsel is also investigating Trump’s role in crafting an initially misleading statement released by his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., following reports about a Trump Tower meeting with two Russian lobbyists offering dirt on the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

And Mueller is interested in gauging whether Trump played any role in the Russia-backed campaign to hack into the Democratic National Committee and disseminate stolen materials leading up to the 2016 US election.

But Ellis pulled few punches last week when he grilled Mueller’s team about whether they were targeting Manafort to gain leverage over the president.

“I don’t see what relation this indictment has with what the special counsel is authorised to investigate,” Ellis told prosecutors. “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.”

Ellis later quipped: “The vernacular is ‘to sing.'”

Legal experts say that while it is common for longtime judges – like Ellis, who was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan – to express their opinions more freely, it is unlikely Ellis will ultimately use prosecutors’ motives as the basis to dismiss the Manafort case.

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