As rumors of Robert Mueller’s intent to subpoena President Trump swirled in Washington, word came Friday of a federal judge’s sharp rebuke of the special counsel for broadening the investigation beyond alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election and charging President Trump is the real target.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in the Eastern District of Virginia, who is presiding over Mueller’s case against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, said the special counsel should not have “unfettered power” to investigate charges that had nothing to do with the 2016 U.S. election.
“You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” Ellis told prosecutor Michael Dreeben, the deputy solicitor general for the Justice Department, who is working with Mueller’s investigation.
Manafort is of interest to Mueller, Ellis contended, only because he could provide information that would lead to Trump’s “prosecution or impeachment.”
“That’s what you’re really interested in,” said Ellis, who was appointed in 1987 by Republican President Ronald Reagan and holds degrees from Princeton University, Harvard Law School and the University of Oxford.
“I don’t see what relationship this indictment has with anything the special counsel is authorized to investigate,” he said.
Manafort has been charged in Virginia with tax and bank fraud.
Trump: ‘I love fightin’ these battles’
Trump commented on Ellis’ rebuke in a speech Friday afternoon at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Dallas.
The president noted the judge’s contention that the charges against Manafort have nothing to do with Russian “coordination” with the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.
“Let me tell you, folks, we’re all fightin’ battles. But I love fightin’ these battles,” Trump said.
“It’s really a disgrace,” he added, referring to the Mueller probe.
The crowd responded with sustained applause.
‘Tell me how!‘
Speaking directly to Dreeben, Ellis said it’s “unlikely you’re going to persuade me the special counsel has unfettered power to do whatever he wants.”
Dreeben insisted the special counsel’s “investigative scope does cover the activity” in the indictment against Manafort.
Ellis shot back: “Cover bank fraud in 2005 and 2007? Tell me how!”
The judge asserted it appeared that the indictment against Manafort was a way for Mueller to “assert leverage” over the former Trump campaign manager.
“The vernacular is to sing,” Ellis said.
The hearing Friday was centered on Manafort’s motion to dismiss the indictment, but the judge did not issue a ruling.
Dreeben argued that Mueller’s investigation of Manafort was authorized by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who was given authority to appoint the special counsel after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the case.
Asked to explain why Rosenstein’s May 2017 order outlining the scope of the investigation did not reveal all the details, the special counsel lawyer said it was because the material involved sensitive national security and counterintelligence matters.
Dreeben pointed out the details of the scope of the probe were communicated to Mueller.
But Ellis wasn’t satisfied, charging the lawyer’s answer showed he was “not really telling the truth” about the investigation.
Dreeben’s answer, the judge said, prompts a response of “Come on, man!”
Dreeben further argued Rosenstein wrote a second memo two months later that granted Mueller the power to investigate Manafort’s relationship with Ukraine before the 2016 election.
The judge replied that the second memo was highly redacted.
Dreeben maintained that the redacted portions were not relevant to Manafort’s case.
“I’ll be the judge,” Ellis said.
Ellis has instructed Mueller’s office to ask U.S. intelligence agencies to allow him to personally review a sealed, unredacted version of the memo.
Giuliani: ’50/50′ chance of Trump subpoena
Meanwhile, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is serving as Trump’s personal attorney, told ABC News Friday he thinks there’s a “50/50” chance that Mueller will subpoena the president.
The New York Times published Monday about four dozen questions Mueller wants to ask Trump. They center on the president’s response to the investigation, including his reasons for firing FBI Director James Comey, and his business dealings with Russia.
This week, however, the $130,000 personal attorney Michael Cohen paid porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election took center stage in Washington, raising speculation that the president could be caught up on campaign-finance violations.
In a lengthy interview Wednesday with the Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, Giuliani revealed Trump reimbursed Cohen for the payment to Daniels, who claims Trump engaged in a consensual sexual encounter with her in 2006 and paid for her silence.
Earlier this year, Trump, who denies Daniels’ claims, told reporters on Air Force One that he had no knowledge of the payment.
Democrats have charged the payment constituted an illegal campaign contribution. Giuliani contends it was not a contribution, because it didn’t come from Trump’s campaign funds.
Trump tweeted Thursday morning that Cohen “received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA.”
The president said such agreements are “very common among celebrities and people of wealth.”
Giuliani said Wednesday night Trump paid Cohen in installments to retain him as his lawyer and claimed Trump didn’t know why he was reimbursing Cohen, regarding it as an “expense.”