The Russian Connection: Mueller Strikes Back

Back in January of this year, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s attorneys filed a civil lawsuit in Washington, DC federal court to have the charges brought against him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III claiming that the Department of Justice and Mueller were “overreaching” with the criminal charges brought against him last fall.

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.”

At the time, Mueller’s office did not respond but a Justice Department spokesperson said the lawsuit was “frivolous” but Manfort had “the right to file whatever he wants.”

Then in March, motions to dismiss the charges were filed in both the DC court and Virginia federal court where Manafort has been charged with 18 counts of banking and tax fraud. The motions again make the claim that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had not given Mueller the authority to bring those charges.

Then last night, this happened from Politico‘s Josh Gerstein:

President Donald Trump’s No. 2 appointee at the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, specifically authorized special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and approved his indictment, prosecutors said in a court filing late Monday night.

Some Trump allies have suggested that by pursuing charges of money laundering, tax fraud and unregistered foreign lobbying against Manafort, Mueller is straying from his core mission of probing alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia prior to the 2016 election.

However, Mueller’s team submitted a previously undisclosed memo to a federal court in Washington showing that a few months after Mueller was appointed last May, Rosenstein gave him explicit authority to target Manafort over the financial aspects of his lobbying work for the Ukrainian government — in addition to allegations he was linked to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“The May 17, 2017 [appointment] order was worded categorically in order to permit its release without confirming specific investigations involving specific individuals,” Rosenstein wrote in the Aug. 2, 2017 memo. “The following allegations were within the scope of the Investigation at the time of your appointment and are within the scope of the Order: … Allegations that Paul Manafort: Committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election for President of the United States, in violation of United States law. Committed a crime or crimes arising out of payments he received from the Ukrainian government before and during the tenure of President Viktor Yanukovych.”

The 53 page response (pdf) has about two and a half pages blacked out by prosecutors to protect classified information other lines of investigation that remain a secret.

The Washington Post also notes that Mueller explains in a footnote his authority to investigate any attempts to obstruct his probe of Russian interference of US elections but, also, any attempts made by Donald Trump.

When he was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May (after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recusal from any investigations involving the 2016 presidential campaign), Rosenstein issued a public outline of the scope of Mueller’s authority. We’ve walked through this before; it includes three main things:

  • “Any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”
  • “Any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
  • “Any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).”

That section of the Code of Federal Regulations — 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a) — allows Mueller to investigate “federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel’s investigation,” including lying to authorities. [..]

To that end, Mueller’s response cites the regulations establishing the special counsel. [..]

And here’s where things get really interesting, in a footnote appended to that quote.

This is a direct quote from the section of the Code of Federal Regulations we noted in the third bullet point above. [..]

Mueller plays his cards close to his chest, and we often find ourselves in the position of trying to read his mind. In this case, we may be overestimating the message intended by footnote No. 6.

Or, perhaps, he is reminding the world — and the president — that if he sees potential obstruction of his investigation, he has the full authority to chase it down.

More tomorrow when Judge Amy Berman Jackson is scheduled to hold a hearing on Manfort’s January civil suit tomorrow.