Attorneys for former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court accusing special counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department of overreaching with criminal charges brought last fall that included money laundering and tax evasion.
Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty to the multi-count indictment, urged the court to strike down Mueller’s appointment as illegal. The 17-page complaint argues that the Russia special counsel exceeded authority DOJ gave him in May to investigate any links or coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — and that DOJ granted Mueller too much power in the first place by giving him the green light to go after “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
If the court won’t strike down his appointment, Manafort’s lawsuit suggests several other options, including setting aside Mueller’s indictments, declaring that he doesn’t have the authority to investigate business dealings that aren’t part of his original mandate, stopping him from investigating matters beyond the scope of the original appointment, or “any other relief as may be just and proper.”
“The principle that government must be both limited in power and accountable to the people lies at the core of our constitutional traditions. That principle must be zealously guarded against creeping incursions,” Manafort attorneys Kevin Downing and Thomas Zehnle wrote in the lawsuit, which was filed in the same venue — the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia — overseeing Mueller’s criminal case against both Manafort and former Trump 2016 campaign aide Rick Gates.
Mueller’s office declined to comment on the Manafort complaint. But a Justice Department spokeswoman pushed back in a statement. “The lawsuit is frivolous but the defendant is entitled to file whatever he wants,” the DOJ official said.
The Manafort lawsuit — which names DOJ, Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as co-defendants — isn’t exactly unexpected. The longtime GOP operative through his attorneys had signaled in the days after the October indictment that he had plans to file pre-trial motions questioning “the legal basis for and sufficiency of the charges, the suppression of evidence improperly obtained by search warrant, subpoena or otherwise.”
But it’s the latest in a string of attacks questioning Mueller’s authority and political credibility, and complaints against Mueller have put DOJ in a tight place. Trump himself has urged the Justice Department to open separate investigations into Hillary Clinton and other Democrats.
Manafort’s civil complaint takes issue with the fact that Mueller went after alleged crimes that long pre-date Trump’s official announcement in June 2015 that he was running for president. The charges against Manafort and Gates center not around campaign-related activity but around the finances of their lobbying business and accusations that they shirked requirements that lobbyists for foreign governments must register with the Justice Department.
Manafort’s attorneys also broach a 1999 decision by Congress, on the heels of Kenneth Starr’s years-long probe into President Bill Clinton’s scandal-plagued White House, that allowed for the lapse of the law establishing the independent counsel office.
Noting Rosenstein had appointed Mueller using DOJ regulations, Manafort’s attorneys argue he has been granted “carte blanche to investigate and pursue criminal charges in connection with anything he stumbles across while investigating, no matter how remote from the specific matter identified as the subject of the Appointment Order.”
Manafort’s lawsuit provides several new details about the extent to which federal investigators have been looking into his lobbying work outside the U.S.
Manafort, for example, voluntarily met with the DOJ and FBI on July 30, 2014 and “provided a detailed explanation of his activities in Ukraine, including his frequent contact with a number of previous U.S. Ambassadors in Kiev and his efforts to further U.S. objectives in Ukraine on their behalf,” the lawsuit says. He also discussed his offshore banking activity in Cyprus, his attorneys said.
DOJ signaled at the time that their inquiry related to helping the Ukrainian government “in locating stolen assets” and said the investigation “closed soon” after Manafort was interviewed. But Manafort’s team contends that Mueller charged him “with the very conduct he voluntarily disclosed to DOJ almost three years prior to the appointment” of the Russia special counsel.
The lawsuit also claims Mueller last August issued more than 100 subpoenas related to the lobbying, including a request for records dating back to Jan. 1, 2005. One of Mueller’s lead prosecutors also told a Manafort attorney that the special counsel believed it had the authority to prosecute him for crimes committed during tax year 2010, five years before Trump launched his campaign.
Legal experts predicted that Manafort’s latest legal gambit is unlikely to find much traction, particularly as a civil suit separate from the criminal case. University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck said Rosenstein’s appointment of Mueller seemed to encompass the various matters the FBI had already linked together before the special counsel was brought in last May. Some lawyers also said they were surprised the suit doesn’t argue that special counsels are inherently unconstitutional.
Manafort’s suit comes as Trump allies have been stepping up their public criticism of Mueller. By joining in that public assault, Manafort could be positioning himself for a pardon from Trump, even if the effort to derail the prosecution falls flat.
But former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, who called the suit a “silly” and “desperate” effort, said the move could backfire by giving Mueller a platform to mount a robust public defense of his work.
“This is the best thing that could happen for Robert Mueller. There have been all these people out there saying he’s politically biased and he’s exceeding his authority, and he’s stayed honorably silent,” Katyal said. “Now, he’s going to have a federal court rule on those questions. There’s nothing better than that.”
Trump’s allies on and off Capitol Hill, echoed by conservative media, have claimed the special counsel is surrounded by biased prosecutors who have donated more heavily to Democrats — a charge Mueller’s defenders dismiss as a petty attempt to circumvent a federal employee’s freedom of speech. A lawyer for Trump’s transition team last month also accused Mueller of unlawfully obtaining tens of thousands of private emails during its investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.
Rosenstein testified before Congress last month that he was carefully monitoring Mueller’s investigation. However, the No. 2 Justice Department official was vague about whether Mueller had received any expansion of his original jurisdiction.
“I discussed that with Director Mueller when he started, and we’ve had ongoing discussion about exactly what is within the scope of his investigation. And, to the extent there was any ambiguity about it, he’s received my permission to include those matters within his investigation,” Rosenstein told the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 13. “It’s a clarification, in most cases….And I’m accountable for what they’re doing, and I need to know what they’re doing.”
The civil suit, which is legally separate from the criminal case against Manafort and Gates, was assigned Wednesday to U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama. However, it is likely to be reassigned to Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee who is already handling the criminal case.
Manafort’s complaint comes as the Mueller indictments shift toward a potential criminal trial as soon as this spring. Jackson, the federal judge, has scheduled a Jan. 16 status update on the case. In December, she cleared the way for Manafort to be released from house arrest and allowed him to relocate to South Florida as part of a $10 million bail deal with Mueller.
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