Judge Ellis Knows What He’s Doing in the Manafort Trial

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE DAILY INTELLIGENCER)

 

Judge Ellis Knows What He’s Doing in the Manafort Trial

Judge Ellis (L) and star witness Rick Gates (R), as depicted by a courtroom artist last week. Photo: Dana Verkouteren via Associated Press

U.S. Senior District Judge T.S. Ellis is among a handful of judges in the country who know some of the deepest secrets of the Russia investigation. When lawyers for Paul Manafort asked him, unsuccessfully, to dismiss a slew of charges against their client accusing him of tax evasion and bank fraud, Ellis asked the office of special counsel Robert Mueller to hand over, without any redactions, an otherwise highly classified memorandumcontaining the scope of his authority to investigate Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman and other crimes.

More than anything, Ellis seemed to want to make sure Mueller wasn’t some loose cannon, going above and beyond his mandate as special counsel. Even then, he gave the government some time to produce the memorandum, mindful that other parts of the executive branch might have objections. “I think it’s perfectly appropriate for you to consult with other parts of the government, particularly intelligence agencies. If they feel some of it is classified, I’m prepared to look at it ex parte under seal,” Ellis said at the May hearing, meaning he’d let Mueller’s team submit the memo without letting Manafort’s side or the public get a look at it. Highly sensitive trials and government secrets, he added, are nothing new to him.

When came time to rule, it wasn’t even close. Mueller’s prosecutorial authority, as outlined in his appointment order of May 2017, isn’t limited “to federal crimes concerning election interference or collusion,” Ellis wrote in a 31-page decision, but “rather, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes that arise out of his authorized investigation.” He added: “And the crimes charged in the Superseding Indictment clearly arise out of the Special Counsel’s investigation into the payments defendant allegedly received from Russian-backed leaders and pro-Russian political officials.”

Count me among the skeptics who doubt that Ellis’s scoldings and outbursts during the first two weeks of Paul Manafort’s trial in Virginia, as reported in the press, mean much of anything in the grand scheme. As I observed last week, the first public trial of the broader Russia saga is, for lack of a better term, a show trial — a minuscule part of the far more serious charges and revelations that Manafort is expected to answer for in the coming months in Washington.

And yet somehow we can’t look away. Or stop following the drip-drip-drip of trial developments. Or stop worrying that Ellis may somehow be biased against the prosecution or unduly prejudicing jurors to see things his way. Political and court journalists stationed at the judge’s Alexandria courtroom, God bless them, aren’t helping things, bringing us breathless tidbit after breathless tidbit as if the fate of the republic depended on it.

In the week that just ended, it was star witness Rick Gates’s showstopping testimony that led nearly every news report, and with good reason: As a longtime Manafort protégé and associate, he knows better than most where the bodies are buried. But even during his time in the spotlight, it was suggestions of serial lying and marital infidelity on his part, which the Manafort defense may have let linger to cast doubt on his credibility as a witness, that had court watchers and worriers wondering about what might happen to the prosecution’s case — which, in the eyes of many, had better be airtight, lest the president of the United States dance on the grave of the special counsel’s phony witch hunt.

I am here to reassure you that rumors of the demise of the Virginia prosecution against Paul Manafort have been greatly exaggerated. And that the heated confrontations between Judge Ellis and prosecutors — to the extent they happened in front of the jury — are just a foretaste of what the defense is likely to get when it starts to lay its cards on the table.

So far, all jurors have seen is one side of the case. And when it’s time for Manafort’s legal team to mount what Politico describes as “mission impossible,” it may consist of no more than attempts to paint its client as a victim, a highly sophisticated lobbyist who didn’t know better, or simply someone who was too busy working for Ukrainian interests to mind the minutiae of reporting his offshore taxable income or true liquid assets when he procured outsize bank loans the moment his political fortunes ran dry. A man too wealthy to keep good track of his own money or its whereabouts, if you will. Good luck with that.

More important still, for all the flashy testimony to come out of the trial, including from people who had direct knowledge of Manafort’s wheeling and dealing, jurors have already seen reams of documentary evidence — emails, invoices, and business records that paint a picture of the scheme Manafort is accused of orchestrating. In significant ways, the oral testimony simply corroborates or adds to the foundation prosecutors have already laid with the documents entered into evidence.

As for Ellis, whose ornery treatment of prosecutors has gotten him undue attention for all the wrong reasons, it’s best to not read too much into it. Again, because the defense is likely to catch fire from him too, but also because benchslapping is something that trial lawyers have to live with — and it’s not a good barometer of how jurors will ultimately decide a case.

“Judicial intemperance is common and, for better or worse, dealing with it is part of a litigator’s job,” Ken White, a longtime criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, observed in an NBC News column. “Trial lawyers know that judicial grumbling is not a reliable predictor of results. It’s often just sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Ellis, more than just about anyone else in America, knows a wealth of extremely sensitive details about the Russia investigation, and his apparent drive to cut no slack for the prosecution also indicates that he wants theirside to have a solid trial record in the event of an appeal. “Riding prosecutors and limiting their evidence doesn’t necessarily signal that Ellis thinks they’re in the wrong — it may signal that he thinks they’re likely to convict Manafort, and he wants to make the result as clean and error-free as possible,” added White.

Either way, it’s not like the Mueller team is letting the judge play them for fools. Early on Thursday, the prosecutors filed a prehearing motion calling on Ellis to correct the record about something he had done a day earlier: letting them have it for allowing an IRS agent who was also a witness watch the weekly proceedings in the courtroom, which he had permitted but seemingly forgotten about. “It appears I may well have been wrong,” Ellis said in an unlikely moment of humility, according to Reuters. “But like any human, and this robe doesn’t make me anything other than human, I sometimes make mistakes.”

Expect jurors to credit that contrition — and the prosecution for holding the judge to his own rules. And don’t believe the hype: This trial thus far is going far worse for Manafort than it is for Mueller.

Conservatives (GOP) introduce measure demanding Mueller’s resignation

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF POLITICO)

 

Conservatives introduce measure demanding Mueller’s resignation

It’s the latest sign of GOP resistance to the special counsel’s Russia probe.

Three House Republicans on Friday moved to pressure special counsel Robert Mueller to resign over what they contend are “obvious conflicts of interest,” the latest instance of rising GOP resistance to his Russia probe.

Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), introduced a measure that, while nonbinding, would put the House on record describing Mueller, a former FBI director, as unfit to lead the probe because of his relationship with James Comey, his successor at the bureau.

“[B]e it Resolved, That House of Representatives expresses its sense that Robert Mueller is compromised and should resign from his special counsel position immediately,” the resolution states.

Mueller is investigating whether any Americans aided Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election as well as whether figures in the Trump administration may have obstructed justice in part by moving to oust Comey in May, when the FBI’s Russia investigation was picking up steam. Mueller was appointed by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein after an uproar following President Donald Trump’s decision to fire Comey.

The move by the three lawmakers to seek Mueller’s resignation is a sign of intensifying frustration among Trump’s allies during the same week Mueller issued his first indictments in the probe: money laundering charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates. Mueller also secured a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, a low-level campaign foreign policy adviser, who lied to the FBI about his attempts to arrange a meeting between Russian officials and the Trump campaign.

The anger from Republicans appears to mirror the feelings of Trump, who on Friday unloaded in a series of tweets urging his own Justice Department to investigate Democrats — not him — for transgressions he says occurred during the 2016 election.

“This is real collusion and dishonesty. Major violation of Campaign Finance Laws and Money Laundering,” he said, accusing Democrats of the same charges that Manafort was hit with. “[W]here is our Justice Department?”

Most Republicans, including those in GOP leadership, are not on board with dismissing Mueller.

But the conservative push has worried some on the left, who are urging Democratic lawmakers to step up their defense of Mueller.

“While it might be ideal to wait to speak out until Mueller finishes his investigation, Trump’s defenders in Congress are not waiting to defend the President’s actions or to pass judgment on the investigation,” CAP Action Fund wrote in a memo being prepared for lawmakers and obtained by POLITICO. “The heightened risk to Trump from Mueller’s investigation also means there is a heightened risk to the Mueller investigation from Trump.”

Other conservatives, like Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), have already called for Mueller’s departure.

DeSantis, too, has ramped up his efforts to hinder Mueller’s investigation. He recently pushed an amendment, which failed to gain traction, that would have curtailed Mueller’s probe within six months and limited its scope.

And in a Thursday interview with Breitbart Radio, DeSantis blamed Rosenstein for a “clumsy” decision to appoint Mueller without putting strict limits on his scope.

“Rosenstein really muffed this,” he said.

Breitbart News Editor Alex Marlow, who interviewed DeSantis, promised to give his proposal a lot of airtime and ink.

“We’re going to be pushing it heavily or at least content on it heavily,” he said.

In his interview, DeSantis also foreshadowed the end of the House Intelligence Committee’s separate investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“The good news on the congressional side, at least in the House, is from what I understand, they’ve really increased the frequency of the interviews of the people and I think on the House side this Russia-Trump [probe] is going to come to an end soon,” he said.

DeSantis isn’t on the intelligence panel but said talking to committee members, he’s convinced it’ll be done “certainly before the end of the year.”

He also said he’s been urging Speaker Paul Ryan to curtail the House investigation.

“I said, ‘Mr. Speaker, we’ve been spinning these wheels. There’s no evidence. If there is, produce it. I think we’d all like to see it. But if not, then we’ve got to get on with our business,’” adding, “I think that message has been received.”

While the new resolution faults Mueller for leading the probe despite his professional relationship with Comey, it also includes a broader broadside against the FBI.

The three lawmakers say the agency should be investigated for “willful blindness” over a seven-year-old sale of uranium production facilities to Russian interests, which conservatives have argued was approved in part by the Hillary Clinton-led State Department at the same time a party to the deal was making donations to the Clinton Foundation.

Mueller, they note, was presiding over the FBI at the time the agency was investigating a Russian bribery and extortion scheme connected to the uranium deal, but the agency declined to notify Congress of its investigation and prevented a confidential informant from notifying lawmakers.

“Any thorough and honest investigation into the corruption of American-uranium related business must include investigating the willful blindness of the FBI and its leaders,” according to the resolution.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager.

Manafort indictment, Papadopoulos guilty plea

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF POLITIFACT)

 

What you need to know about Manafort indictment, Papadopoulos guilty plea

  
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The special counsel’s investigation into possible ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia escalated dramatically with news that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business associate were indicted on a dozen felony counts, including money laundering.

Separately, a foreign policy adviser to the campaign pleaded guilty to misleading the FBI about outreach efforts to Russian government officials.

These mark the most significant developments to date in special counsel Robert Mueller’s five-month-old investigation. Here’s what you need to know.

The charges against Manafort and Gates

The 12 charges against Manafort and Gates fall broadly into three categories: failing to disclose lobbying activities on behalf of foreign entities, financial crimes and making false statements. (They pleaded not guilty to all charges.)

The first group of charges relates to their work on behalf of Ukraine, for which they’re charged with failing to fully and accurately disclose their activities as foreign agents.

Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates made tens of millions of dollars lobbying on behalf of a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine and the man who led it into power, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

But according to the indictment, from roughly 2008 through 2014, Manafort and Gates did not register with the U.S. attorney general as agents working on behalf of Ukrainian interests, as required by law. A separate count alleges they made false and misleading statements about their activities.

The second group of charges relates to financial crimes, including money laundering.

In order to hide the money from the U.S. government, the indictment states, Manafort and Gates “laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and back accounts.” Manafort and Gates also stand accused of failing to report financial interests held overseas.

Finally, one count alleges that Manafort and Gates made false statements on their submissions to the U.S. Justice Department.

Why what they’re charged with is criminal

Manafort and Gates have been charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, for failing to disclose lobbying activities on behalf of foreign entities. Congress passed this law in 1938 amid worries that foreign governments would try to infiltrate the United States.

The law requires agents of foreign interests to register with the Justice Department and outline the terms of their agreement, as well as income and expenditures on behalf of the foreign interest, and updating their disclosure every six months.

“Lawmakers wanted to create barriers to infiltration and to expose hidden foreign lobbying on questionable positions that don’t focus on ‘patriotic purposes,’ ” said Jed Shugerman, a professor at Fordham Law School.

Shugerman said there are longstanding statutes on the books that outlaw money laundering and that require disclosure of foreign assets and bank accounts. He said money laundering laws have been rewritten through the years to create a new tool to combat organized crime and those who assist it.

Statutes that make it illegal to provide false statements date back to before the Civil War, he said.

Shugerman noted that a person does not need to be under oath when they make a false statement to the FBI in order to violate the law. That makes the law broader than perjury laws, which makes it illegal to tell untruths in a judicial proceeding after a witness has sworn an oath.

What Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to

In a separate development, foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos agreed to plead guilty to making false statements to the FBI.

Papadopoulos misled the bureau about the timing of his involvement with the campaign, as well as the significance of interactions he had with people he understood to be connected to Russian government officials.

According to the court filing, Papadopoulos falsely told the FBI that he was not part of the Trump campaign when a person described as an “overseas professor” told him that Russians possessed “dirt” on then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” In fact, Papadopoulos learned of the “dirt” in late April 2016, more than a month after signing on as a Trump adviser.

Papadopoulos also falsely downplayed the significance of his interactions with the professor. In his interview with the FBI, he dismissed the professor as “a nothing,” that he thought the professor was “just a guy talk(ing) up connections or something,” and believed he was “BS’ing to be completely honest with you.”

But according to the court filing, Papadopoulos “understood the professor to have substantial connections to high-level Russian government officials,” including officials in Moscow.

Papadopoulos also failed to disclose to the FBI that the professor had introduced him to someone in Moscow with a purported connection to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also misled the FBI about the timing and significance of his meeting with a female Russian national who he mistakenly believed was related to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

How it affects or didn’t affect 2016 election

There’s no direct evidence of collusion or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia in the Manafort and Gates indictment, Shugerman said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasized this point during a briefing with reporters.

“We’ve been saying from day one, there’s been no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and nothing in the indictment today changes that at all,” she said.

Sanders said of Papadopoulos’ guilty plea, “it has nothing to do with the activities of the campaign, it has to do with his failure to tell the truth. It doesn’t have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign’s activities.”

But the revelations contained in the Papadopolous court filing are less easily dismissed.

Papadopoulos learned in early March 2016 that he would be an adviser to the Trump campaign on foreign policy, and that one of the campaign’s principal goals was to improve U.S.-Russian relations.

It was after joining the campaign that he cultivated relationships he would try to use to broker an overseas meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials. According to the court filing, the proposed trip never took place.

But Papadopolous’ repeated outreach efforts are sure to raise more questions of collusion, particularly in light of the fact that Donald Trump Jr. accepted a meetingduring the campaign that was predicated on the promise that a “Russian government attorney” would deliver damaging information to him about his father’s Democratic opponent as part of the Kremlin’s effort to tip the scales in Trump’s favor.

Papadopoulos’ guilty plea is the result of a negotiated resolution between the defendant and the Justice Department, said Andrew D. Leipold, law professor at University of Illinois College of Law.

But Leipold said it’s unclear what the terms of the agreement were, including the extent to which the deal was made in exchange for future or past cooperation.

While it’s not clear exactly what Papadopoulos’ guilty plea means, it contains “all kinds of tea leaves and hints about what’s coming next,” said Shugerman.

He believes it’s no coincidence that it was revealed just after Manafort’s indictment, and said it puts additional pressure on Manafort to cooperate with the special counsel.

“It triggers the isolation of Manafort, who realizes how much jeopardy he’s in,” Shugerman said.

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Sarah Huckabee Sanders
White House Press Secretary
Sarah Huckabee Sanders said George Papadopoulos’ guilty plea “doesn’t have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign’s activities.”