From the beginning, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III let special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutorial team on the Paul Manafort trial know that they were on a short leash.
Allowing the case to move forward on June 26, Judge Ellis sternly warned Mueller’s team:
“Although this case will continue, those involved should be sensitive to the danger unleashed when political disagreements are transformed into partisan prosecutions….
“To provide a special counsel with a large budget and to tell him or her to find crimes allows a special counsel to pursue his or her targets without the usual time and budget constraints facing ordinary prosecutors, encouraging substantial elements of the public to conclude that the special counsel is being deployed as a political weapon.”
Not stopping there, the judge got to the heart of the matter.
“Even a blind person can see that the true target of the Special Counsel’s investigation is President Trump, not defendant, and that defendant’s prosecution is part of that larger plan,” Judge Ellis wrote. “Although these kinds of high-pressure prosecutorial tactics are neither uncommon nor illegal, they are distasteful.”
The judge is ruining our prosecution
Judge Ellis has shown his frustration with the prosecutors on myriad occasions since then, and, on August 9, Mueller’s team finally had enough, filing a complaint claiming the judge had unfairly scolded them in front of the jury.
Liberal news site Politico’s take on the complaint may show just what Mueller’s team is really up to:
Taken on their own, the individual rebukes [by Judge Ellis] are relatively minor. But some legal experts say that, cumulatively, they could plant doubt in the mind of jurors about the strength of the prosecution’s case. Renato Mariotti, a prominent former federal prosecutor, tweeted Wednesday that Ellis has made “improper statements that have hurt the prosecution.”
Mariotti wasn’t the only critic of the judge.
“[T]he judge’s condescending attitude [could give] the jury the impression that the prosecution’s case is dubious,” Philip Lacovara, a former U.S. deputy solicitor general said.
Always a weak case – against its real target
Of course, the prosecution’s case has always been dubious – as it pertained to President Trump. Even the liberal New Yorker magazine acknowledged as much, with Adam Davidson writing that “[t]he idea that Manafort committed big crimes before he was in Trump’s orbit and minor ones around the time he joined the campaign has inspired some to wonder if Mueller is desperate, himself, grabbing a few lame charges because he can’t find anything more substantive.”
Manafort’s earlier schemes, the ones from before 2014, are fairly dramatic, involving tens of millions of dollars and apparently a brazen effort to avoid paying taxes. By contrast, his alleged crimes in 2016 are quite small, by international criminal standards. They amount to misleading a bank to squeeze a few hundred thousand more out of loans. This is not the sort of thing that normally gets prosecuted criminally, certainly not by a special counsel.
Indeed, Judge Ellis expressed limited patience with prosecutors on the 2016 loan inquiries on August 10. When prosecutors asked an official from Citizen’s Bank in New York about a Manafort loan application that was rejected, the judge snapped, “you might want to spend time on a loan that was granted.”
By attempting to position the judge in the case as biased, the Mueller team may be seeking an out from the inevitable cries to wrap up the Trump Russia probe that will ring loud if the jury’s verdict reveals yet another fizzle in attempts to sully Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
By setting up an appeal, perhaps Mueller is attempting to fulfill what has been his real mission all along: to keep this political sideshow going for as long as possible.
What if the Trump-Russia probe was not meant to ever reach definitive conclusions? What if it was meant to be one – a more prominent one, to be sure, but merely one – of a thousand pinpricks against the Trump administration, harassing and hopefully slowing its efforts to enact substantial change in Washington, D.C.?
In such an operation, the Mueller probe doesn’t have to discover anything – it merely needs to go on. And on.
Independent investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, in an op-ed in The Hill, astutely paints the scenario of entrenched D.C. Deep State figures aiming to use any weapon of obstruction they can to run out the clock on the Trump years before he can do any damage to their state within the state.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that powerful, connected people in the intelligence community and in politics worried that a wildcard Trump presidency, unlike another Clinton or Bush, might expose a decade-plus of questionable practices. Disrupt long-established money channels. Reveal secret machinations that could arguably land some people in prison.
What exactly might an “insurance policy” against Donald Trump look like?
He would have to be marginalized at every turn. Strategies would encompass politics, the courts, opposition research and the media. He’d have to become mired in lawsuits, distracted by allegations, riddled with calls for impeachment, hounded by investigations. His election must be portrayed as the illegitimate result of a criminal or un-American conspiracy.
Attkisson notes the phrase “insurance policy” was used by anti-Trump FBI agent Peter Strzok and by Brookings Institution Director Benjamin Wittes, who Attkisson reports is “a good friend of fired FBI Director James Comey.”
By appealing a squishy verdict and blaming it all on a “biased” judge, Mueller may be able to do the one thing his Deep State partners most desire: Keep the circus running.