The Slatest

Judge Praised by Trump for Questioning Robert Mueller’s Authority Rules That Mueller Does, in Fact, Have Authority

A courtroom sketch artist's drawing of a jowly ol' judge.
Look, he’s a federal judge, there are only so many images of the guy available. Shawn Thew/AFP/Getty Images

In May, a federal judge in Virginia named T.S. Ellis III asked some pointed questions of Robert Mueller’s special counsel prosecutors during a hearing related to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Manfort’s lawyers were arguing that Mueller exceeded the bounds of his instructions to investigate 2016 Russian election tampering by charging Manafort with Russia-connected financial crimes he allegedly committed several years ago; as Slate wrote at the time:

Ellis, a Ronald Reagan appointee who sits in the Eastern District of Virginia, told prosecutors: “You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud. You really care about getting information Mr. Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump and lead to his prosecution or impeachment.”* Ellis further cautioned the special counsel’s office against seeking “unfettered power” and said its statements that it is investigating allegations related to the 2016 election amount to “lying.”

This verbal aggression got the attention of America’s president, Donald Trump, who read some of Ellis’ remarks aloud approvingly at an NRA event the next day and called him “a highly respected judge” who is “very special.”

Even at the time, though, legal observers cautioned that Ellis’ musings in court did not amount to a belief that Manafort should go free; moreover, Manafort is also charged with other crimes in Washington, D.C., where a judge recently revoked his bail and sent him to jail over suspected witness tampering. And, completing the loop, Ellis has now issued a ruling asserting that Mueller’s charges against Manafort are in fact legitimate. Wrote Ellis:

The May 17 Appointment Order plainly authorizes the investigation of indirect links between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government in addition to more direct connections. In this regard, the May 17 Appointment Order authorizes the Special Counsel to investigate defendant’s ties with individuals financially and politically supported by the Russian government, even where, as here, those individuals are not themselves members of the Russian government. 

It is “plausible” and indeed ultimately persuasive,” he said further, “to argue that the [Manafort] investigation and prosecution has some relevance to the election which occurred months if not years after the alleged misconduct.”

So, there you go! An apology from the White House will no doubt be forthcoming.