Court Battles

Manafort sues Mueller, challenging scope of Russia investigation

Getty Images/Greg Nash

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is suing the Department of Justice and special counsel Robert Mueller in an attempt to kneecap the federal probe into alleged coordination between the campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. 

In a court filing on Wednesday, lawyers for Manafort argue that the order establishing Mueller’s investigation is overly broad and not permitted under Justice Department regulations. 

Mueller should be ordered to stop investigating any of Manafort’s conduct that doesn’t relate to his time as campaign chair, the suit says, and the appointment itself should be declared invalid.

“By ignoring the boundaries of the jurisdiction granted to the Special Counsel in the Appointment Order, Mr. Mueller acted beyond the scope of his authority. Mr. Mueller’s actions must be set aside,” the filing states.

Manafort, whom Mueller is prosecuting on tax fraud and money laundering charges, is also suing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who issued the order in May appointing Mueller as special counsel. 

That appointment, according to Manafort’s lawyers, was “arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance” with a law governing the implementation of federal regulations — in this case, the regulation that allows for the appointment of a special counsel.

Even if the appointment of Mueller were legal, Manafort’s lawyers argue, by investigating “stale allegations” that predated the campaign by over a decade Mueller has far exceeded the scope laid out by Rosenstein.

The Justice Department rule that allows the attorney general to appoint a special counsel, the lawyers say, requires him to provide a “specific factual statement of the matter to be investigated.” If the special counsel wants to investigate an unrelated matter than comes to light during the course of an investigation, the rule requires him to consult with the attorney general.

After President Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey in May, Rosenstein authorized Mueller to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” along with  “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

That order, Manafort’s lawyers wrote, “purports to grant Mr. Mueller carte blanche to investigate and pursue criminal charges in connection with anything he stumbles across while investigating, no matter how remote.”

A Department of Justice spokesperson called Manafort’s suit “frivolous,” adding, “the defendant is entitled to file whatever he wants.”

Some outside analysts were skeptical that the lawsuit would be successful, calling it a “public relations move.”

Even if Manafort is able to argue that he has standing to bring the case, “there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that a judge is going to reject DOJ’s interpretation here of the scope of permissible authority that can be delegated to Mueller,” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer.

The filing comes amidst a firestorm of criticism against Mueller from the right, including from a small but vocal group of conservative lawmakers who have called for his resignation. President Trump has derided the probe as a “witch hunt,” insisting that there is “no collusion.”

“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus,” Trump tweeted when the charges were handed down in October.

In the indictment of Manafort, the special counsel’s office detailed years of financial transactions that they allege were part of a sprawling money-laundering scheme that continued into March of 2016, when he began to work for the Trump campaign.

The indictment also charges Manafort with making false statements to the FBI in 2016 and 2017.

According to Manafort’s lawyers, “early in the process,” Mueller “diverged” from his mandate to probe the alleged coordination between the campaign and the Kremlin to focus on the former campaign chair’s overseas consulting business. In August alone, they said, Mueller issued more than 100 subpoenas related to Manafort’s business dealings, dating back to 2005.

Mueller paid particular attention to a 2014 lobbying campaign led by Manafort on behalf of a pro-Kremlin political party in Ukraine, they allege. Those dealings had “no connection whatsoever” to the 2016 election or Trump, the filing argues, nor were they uncovered during the course of the investigations.

Manafort’s lobbying efforts on behalf of the Kremlin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, had been publicly reported prior to the indictment. According to the filing, Manafort voluntarily met with DOJ investigators in 2014 to discuss his consulting activities, but he was not the target of that investigation and it was closed shortly thereafter. 

“The investigation of Mr. Manafort is completely unmoored from the Special Counsel’s original jurisdiction,” the suit claims.

Mueller alleges that Manafort’s consultancy was paid tens of millions of dollars for the advocacy work and then laundered the money “in order to hide Ukraine payments from United States authorities.”

Beginning in 2006, according to the government, Manafort began to do work for the Party of Regions, a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. In 2010, its candidate, Yanukovych, was elected president. He was later forced to flee to Russia in 2014 in the wake of popular protests, effectively ending Manafort’s work.

During that period, Mueller’s indictment alleges that Manafort created more than a dozen foreign financial entities in Cyprus, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Seychelles. 

But in his tax filings from 2008 to 2014, Manafort reported that he did not have authority over any foreign bank accounts, according to the indictment. He allegedly used his offshore accounts to purchase real estate in the U.S. on which he took out mortgages, thereby gaining tax-free cash in the United States.

Prosecutors allege that Manafort used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a “lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income,” spending millions on luxury goods and services through payments wired from his offshore accounts.

Questioned about these activities by federal investigators in 2016, Mueller claims, Manafort and an associate who has also been charged, Richard Gates, “responded with a series of false and misleading statements.” 

When the charges against Manafort were unveiled last year, it was seen by some as a signal that Mueller was trying to “flip” Manafort — or convince him to act as an informant, potentially about the Trump campaign. 

Others suggested Mueller may have simply believed that he had sufficient evidence against Manafort to prove charges in court — or both.

Mueller has already convinced Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, to cooperate with his investigation. Flynn pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI.

Moss noted that Manafort chose to file a separate suit — not file a pretrial motion to dismiss the criminal case against him.

“Courts will reject the premise that there is a viable [Administrative Procedure Act] claim when there is an alternative remedy available to the plaintiff. There is one here,” he said.

“That is one more reason I view this as nothing more than a publicity stunt.”

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report, which was updated on Feb. 25 at 7:04 a.m.

Tags Donald Trump James Comey Justice Department Paul Manafort Paul Manafort Robert Mueller Robert Mueller Rod Rosenstein
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