Judge who sympathized with Manafort sends his case on to trial in Virginia

Paul Manafort is headed for trial, twice.

In a long-awaited ruling Tuesday, federal Judge T.S. Ellis denied Manafort’s request to dismiss the financial criminal charges that the former Trump campaign chairman faces in Virginia. Manafort had argued that special counsel Robert Mueller had no authority to bring the case because it was not related to his work for the 2016 campaign.

Tuesday’s ruling makes it even more difficult for Manafort to fight his cases.

Some court watchers had expected Ellis to side with Manafort and give him a rare pretrial win. Ellis had expressed his own frustrations with the special counsel’s probe in a hearing on Manafort’s request in early May, calling it an attempt to get to President Donald Trump.

Trump himself praised Ellis after the hearing and used the judge’s comments to claim Mueller’s investigation was a “witch hunt.”

But Ellis reasoned on Tuesday that the case against Manafort should stand. The lobbying work Manafort had done for a pro-Russian Ukrainian president, even in the years before the 2016 campaign, “warranted the investigation here,” Ellis wrote.

“No interpretive gymnastics are necessary to determine that the investigation at issue here falls within” Mueller’s authority, the judge wrote.

Still, Ellis swiped at the Mueller team’s budget and jurisdiction, and warned that the public may believe “the Special Counsel is being deployed as a political weapon.”

“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,” Ellis wrote.

Manafort’s Virginia case, for alleged bank fraud and tax crimes, is set for a trial before a jury in late July. Another federal judge, Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, similarly found that Mueller’s charges shouldn’t be dismissed, and Manafort is set for a second trial there in September, on charges of conspiracy to launder money, foreign lobbying violations and witness tampering.

Prosecutorial tactics

In his opinion Tuesday, Ellis accuses the federal prosecutors of wanting to “flip” Manafort — gain his guilty plea and cooperation, as they did with his longtime business partner Rick Gates and with former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn — so they can pursue cases against Trump and other campaign officials.

“Although these kinds of high-pressure prosecutorial tactics are neither uncommon nor illegal, they are distasteful,” Ellis wrote Tuesday. “If a Special Counsel discovers no criminal activity then the investigation is likely to be perceived as a waste of time and resources, and thus a Special Counsel has a strong incentive to find criminality and to prosecute criminal conduct by the people he has been charged with investigating — here persons connected with the Trump campaign.”

The ruling further strengthens the prosecution’s hand against Manafort as the team continues to investigate him and others for possible collusion with Russians.

So far, prosecutors have brought 25 criminal charges against Manafort that carry a maximum total of more than 300 years in prison. So far, Manafort has lost on several requests he’s made to cut down the evidence and charges against him.

If a jury finds the 69-year-old political consultant guilty of the financial charges he faces, he would likely lose much of his assets to the government and spend the rest of his life in jail.

Previously and repeatedly, Manafort has vowed to fight the charges.

A spokesman for Manafort declined to comment following the opinion Tuesday.

Manafort awaits his trials from a Virginia jail, after the DC-based judge revoked his bail on June 15 for allegedly contacting witnesses. His case has a hearing set before Ellis on Friday that will determine several ground rules for the first trial.

Manafort’s lawyers have said their client may not appear in person on Friday, because traveling from the Warsaw, Virginia, regional jail where he is detained to the Alexandria courthouse two hours away is too far.

Arguments against Mueller

Ellis’ opinion Tuesday, though loaded with political commentary, takes some of the wind out of the arguments other attorneys have used to attack Mueller.

In a footnote, Ellis appears to dismiss the argument that another Mueller probe defendant, Concord Management and Consulting, had made in its DC criminal case a day before. The Russian company asked another federal judge to dismiss the conspiracy case against it — and invalidate Mueller’s operation broadly — on constitutional grounds. Mueller needed to have been appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate in order to bring criminal cases, Concord’s team argued.

But Ellis says that legal reasoning doesn’t work. “It is worth noting that such an objection would likely fail,” he wrote Tuesday.

Even Trump’s defense attorney Rudy Giuliani had applauded Ellis’ earlier outspokenness on Manafort as a way to bolster the President’s opposition to Mueller.

“I’m really happy with the judge’s analysis of the Manafort case, his furious warnings to the special counsel, because they apply with equal force to our case,” Giuliani told CNN in May.

Giuliani and Trump’s defense team have battled with Mueller for months over the possibility of an investigative interview with the President. Trump’s team has insisted the President cannot be subpoenaed or indicted.