Like most motions to dismiss, Paul Manafort's was initially viewed as a long-shot bid to win the political operative his freedom and get out from under the thumb of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
But after today's hearing on a motion to dismiss filed by Manafort's lawyers, it's looking increasingly likely that Manafort could escape his charges - and be free of his ankle bracelets - because in a surprising rebuke of Mueller's "overreach", Eastern District of Virginia Judge T.S. Ellis, a Reagan appointee, said Mueller shouldn't have "unfettered power" to prosecute over charges that have nothing to do with collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
Ellis said he's concerned Mueller is only pursuing charges against Manafort (and presumably other individuals) to pressure them into turning on Trump. The Judge added that the charges brought against Manafort didn't appear to stem from Mueller's collusion probe. Instead, they appeared to be the work of an older investigation into Manafort that was eventually dropped.
"I don’t see how this indictment has anything to do with anything the special prosecutor is authorized to investigate," Ellis said at a hearing in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, concerning a motion by Manafort to dismiss the case.
It got better: Ellis also slammed prosecutors saying it appeared they were using the indictment of Manafort to pressure him to cooperate against Trump. Manafort, 69, has pleaded not guilty and disputes Mueller’s assertion that he violated U.S. laws when he worked for a decade as a political consultant for pro-Russian groups in Ukraine.
"You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud," Ellis said. "You really care about what information he might give you about Mr. Trump and what might lead to his impeachment or prosecution."
According to Bloomberg, Ellis is overseeing one of two indictments against Manafort. Manafort is also charged in Washington with money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent of Ukraine.
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Manafort's lawyers had asked the judge in the Virginia case to dismiss an indictment filed against him in what was their third effort to beat back criminal charges by attacking Mueller’s authority. The judge also questioned why Manafort’s case there could not be handled by the U.S. attorney’s office in Virginia, rather than the special counsel’s office, as it is not Russia-related. A question many others have asked, as well.
Ellis has given prosecutors two weeks to show what evidence they have that Manafort was complicit in colluding with the Russians. If they can't come up with any, he may, presumably, dismiss the case. Ellis also asked the special counsel’s office to share privately with him a copy of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein’s August 2017 memo elaborating on the scope of Mueller’s Russia probe. He said the current version he has been heavily redacted.
At that point, should nothing change materially, Manafort may be a free man; needless to say, a dismissal would set precedent and be nothing short of groundbreaking by potentially making it much harder for Mueller to turn other witnesses against the president.
Uh-oh precedence if this gets dismissed.... The Judge may single handedly end the cat and mouse games by the special council and would make it much harder for Muller to turn any other parties to his side (because all charges are unrelated to Russia so far)....— Rob Lee (@WRRob) May 4, 2018
We imagine the prospect of Manafort effectively walking free will prompt some more glee from President Trump on Twitter, touting Ellis' skepticism as validation of his view.