A U.S. federal judge has challenged Special Counsel Robert Mueller's authority to bring charges against Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, suggesting that prosecutors were only using the case to force him to provide evidence against the president.
At a tense hearing on May 4 in Alexandria, Virginia, Judge T.S. Ellis III stated that tax- and bank-fraud charges against Manafort had nothing to do with Mueller's probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 U.S. election or tried to obstruct justice.
"I don't see what relationship this indictment has with what the special counsel is investigating," said Ellis, who was appointed by Republican President Ronald Reagan.
In the hearing, Manafort's lawyer, Kevin Downing, contended that a special counsel should be tightly focused on what he investigates and that charges should be dismissed if Mueller lacked authority to bring them.
Government lawyer Michael Dreeben argued that the special counsel has a broad mandate and that the case against Manafort was justified because of his connections to the Trump campaign and to Ukrainian and Russian officials.
Manafort is alleged to have hidden from U.S. tax authorities the tens of millions of dollars he earned advising pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine from 2006 to 2015 -- including Ukraine's pro-Russian former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by street protests in Kyiv and fled Ukraine in 2014.
In his comments on May 4, the judge suggested, a possible remedy would be to hand the case against Manafort back to regular federal prosecutors rather than the special counsel. Ellis withheld his ruling and will issue a written ruling later.
In a speech in Dallas, Trump praised Ellis as a "highly respected judge" who said what "I've been saying for a long time."
Manafort also faces separate charges in Washington, D.C., where he is accused of conspiring to launder money and failing to register as a foreign agent when he lobbied for the pro-Russia Ukrainian government.
Manafort's lawyers made similar arguments to have the D.C. case dismissed as well. The judge has not yet ruled on the motion.
Manafort has denied wrongdoing. Trump has denied he colluded with Russia during the 2016 campaign or that he obstructed justice. He has called Mueller's investigation biased and a "witch-hunt."