Judge casts doubt on Manafort effort to kill Mueller indictments

The federal judge overseeing the criminal case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort expressed exasperation Wednesday about his separate lawsuit challenging the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller.

Federal Judge Amy Berman Jackson grilled Manafort attorney Kevin Downing for 50 minutes in open court over whether Manafort had the ability to bring the civil lawsuit against the Justice Department.

Previously, Manafort’s attorneys complained that Mueller exceeded his authority by opening cases against Manafort, because they involved business conducted years before he joined the Trump campaign in 2016.

Yet that was no longer an issue Wednesday, and instead will stay part of the legal arguments in his criminal case. Downing said in court they’ve changed the civil complaint they have about Mueller’s investigation to say that they now think only Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein overstepped his authority when he appointed Mueller.

Manafort’s lawyers also asked the federal court to stop the special counsel’s office from bringing additional indictments against Trump’s former campaign chairman.

“We just have to sit and wait for each time the special counsel’s office exceeds its jurisdiction,” Downing said, describing how Manafort should also be able to sue before he faces more criminal charges.

“There’s no doubt Mr. Manafort continues to be harmed by the ongoing special counsel investigation,” he added.

Downing attacked a section of the public order Rosenstein gave Mueller when he was appointed last May. That appointment allowed Mueller to investigate links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, plus “any matters that arose or arise directly from the investigation.” Manafort takes issue with the second part.

A Justice Department lawyer asked Berman Jackson to throw out Manafort’s civil lawsuit and instead visit some of the issues Manafort has raised during his criminal case.

Berman Jackson didn’t decide on the lawsuit on Wednesday, and will issue an opinion later.

A newly unveiled August 2, 2017, classified memo from Rosenstein to Mueller that gives more detail, directing the special counsel to investigate Manafort’s payments related to his work in Ukraine and possible collusion with Russians on the election, wasn’t central to Wednesday’s hearing. However, Berman Jackson called it “the elephant in the room.” That memo comes more into play in Manafort’s effort in his criminal case to cut into Mueller’s work.

At one point, as the hearing touched on whether Manafort might be a person with links to Russians and still fall under Mueller’s appointment order, Berman Jackson asked if Manafort ever had an office in Russia. Downing turned around to look at Manafort, then said forcefully, “Never.”

Berman Jackson got so frustrated with the way Downing had changed his case, as he neared the end of his argument, she cut him off mid-sentence: “I don’t really understand what’s left of your case. Do you have one case that supports this?”

Downing answered that he did not have any existing case law to offer.

Several of the prosecutors who’ve worked on Manafort’s criminal case for Mueller’s office, including lead prosecutor Andrew Weissmann and appellate specialist Michael Dreeben, watched the hearing.