Robert Mueller‘s Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, commonly referred to as a “witch hunt”, suffered two major challenges on Friday and both could put his team’s work under serious scrutiny.
U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis said that Mueller’s team’s prosecution of Paul Manafort has “nothing to do with the campaign” and that he doesn’t “want anyone with unfettered power” referring to the counsel’s seemingly unlimited scope and authority.
The judge also questioned why Mueller’s office was pursuing the bank fraud charges against Manafort, but had handed off the investigation of Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen to prosecutors in Manhattan – a criticism shared by President Trump and many legal experts.
“Why in New York did you feel it was not necessary to keep that, but it was necessary to keep this bank fraud, which I think manifestly has nothing to do with the campaign?” Ellis asked. “Why is New York different?”
“I‘ve been saying that for a long time. It‘s a witch hunt,“ the president said. “None of that information has to do with Russian government information and the campaign of Donald Trump. It doesn‘t have anything to do. It‘s from years before.“
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, a Justice Department lawyer assigned to assist Mueller’s office, confirmed that they handed off some matters to prosecutors in New York, but suggested they didn’t relate to the special counsel’s core focus.
“We take very seriously the primary mission that was assigned to us. We are focused on that mission,” Dreeben said. “We are not going off the range that the acting attorney general authorized us to do. We followed the money into the transactions that led to the charges here.”
The defense had made a motion to throw the case out, which the judge did not rule on. But, if his strong rebuke of the special counsel’s overreach of authority is any signal, he may rule in favor of the defense soon.
In a second court appearance, a federal judge rejected Mueller’s request to delay the first hearing in a criminal case against three Russian companies and several Russian citizens. They are charged with using social media and other means to foment strife among Americans ahead of the 2016 elections. Without the delay, Mueller’s team may have to abandon the prosecution altogether which would cast a shadow over their efforts and invite more Congressional scrutiny.
On Friday, Mueller’s prosecutors disclosed that Concord’s attorneys, Eric Dubelier and Kate Seikaly, had made a slew of discovery requests demanding nonpublic details about the case and the investigation. Prosecutors also asked a judge to postpone the formal arraignment of Concord Management set for next week.
The prosecution team sought the delay on the grounds that it’s unclear whether Concord Management formally accepted the court summons related to the case. Mueller’s prosecutors also revealed that they tried to deliver the summonses for Concord and IRA through the Russian government, without success.
The attorney’s representing Concord responded bluntly Saturday morning saying that Mueller was attempting to subvert the court’s rules and substitute them with a custom process for the Russian firm.
“Defendant voluntarily appeared through counsel as provided for in [federal rules], and further intends to enter a plea of not guilty. Defendant has not sought a limited appearance nor has it moved to quash the summons. As such, the briefing sought by the Special Counsel’s motion is pettifoggery,” Dubelier and Seikaly wrote.
The Concord lawyers said Mueller’s attorneys were seeking “to usurp the scheduling authority of the Court” by waiting until Friday afternoon to try to delay a proceeding scheduled for next Wednesday.
The Concord lawyers also complained that Mueller’s office wasn’t responding to discovery requests.
Dubelier and Seikaly complained that the special counsel’s office has not replied at all to Concord’s discovery requests. The lawyers, who work for Pittsburgh-based law firm Reed Smith, also signaled Concord intends to assert its speedy trial rights, putting more pressure on the special counsel’s office to turn over records related to the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich, who heard the case, quickly dismissed Mueller’s motion and said that the arraignment would happen, as scheduled, on Wednesday putting great pressure on the Special Counsel’s office to comply with discovery requests or risk dismissal of the entire case – the only case they’ve filed that has actual relevance to the intended scope of Mueller’s effort.
Failing in their central directive, Mueller will also face the ire of Deputy Director Rod Rosenstein who might be forced to shut down the wayward effort that has so far produced no evidence of collusion or interference.
These two court rulings may be just the first in a long line of Mueller failures that lead to the dismantling of his Special Counsel.