A federal judge in the trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort said he does not really believe that special counsel Robert Mueller cares about Manafort's alleged bank fraud.
Instead, the judge argued, Mueller's sole objective is the “prosecution or impeachment” of President Donald Trump.
What's the background?
During a hearing for Manafort on Friday in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis accused prosecutor Michael Dreeben and Mueller of going after Manafort in order to “tighten the screws” on Trump.
“You don't really care about Mr. Manafort's bank fraud,” Ellis told Dreeben. “What you really care about is what information Mr. Manafort could give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment.”
Ellis also said that he thought that what Manafort was being accused of was beyond the scope of Mueller's legal authority.
“I don’t see what relationship this indictment has with anything the special counsel is authorized to investigate,” the judge said.
Ellis added that he found it suspicious that Mueller was insisting on having Manafort stand trial in Virginia, while the New York courts were being allowed to try Trump lawyer Michael Cohen on their own. Ellis proposed that this was because prosecutors had decided that the Cohen case did not “further our core effort to get Trump."
Ellis also accused Mueller and his team of trying to wield “unfettered power” in the Russia probe.
“We don't want anyone in this country with unfettered power," he said. "It's unlikely you're going to persuade me the special prosecutor has power to do anything he or she wants.
“The American people feel pretty strongly that no one has unfettered power,” Ellis continued.
Why is Manafort in court?
Manafort is charged with tax and bank fraud. He also faces charges in Washington for failing to register as a lobbyist while working at a pro-Russian firm in Ukraine. He was arrested in October on a recommendation from Mueller.
If Ellis chooses to let the case proceed, Manafort will face a trial on July 10. Ellis has so far not ruled on the defense's motion to have the case thrown out.