(Add details about August 2017 memo penned by Rosenstein, comments from judge)
By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON, June 26 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was dealt a major loss on Tuesday when a federal judge who had previously expressed some sympathy for Manafort refused to dismiss charges brought against him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Judge T.S. Ellis in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled that Mueller was properly appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May 2017 and has the authority to prosecute Manafort.
He also revealed that a classified August 2017 memo written by Rosenstein authorized Mueller to probe allegations that Manafort “committed a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.”
A spokesman for Manafort declined to comment.
“Because the Special Counsel’s appointment was consistent with both Constitutional requirements regarding appointment of officers and statutory requirements governing the authority to conduct criminal litigation on behalf of the United States, the Special Counsel had legal authority to investigate and to prosecute this matter and dismissal of the superseding indictment is not warranted,” Ellis wrote in his opinion.
Tuesday’s ruling marks the second time a federal judge has upheld Mueller’s prosecutorial power, which could have wide-ranging and important implications as he continues his investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia.
Previously, Judge Amy Berman Jackson for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia also refused to dismiss charges against Manafort, after his lawyers sought to discredit Mueller’s probe by accusing Rosenstein of violating Justice Department rules governing the appointment of special counsels.
Manafort is facing two indictments in Washington and nearby Alexandria, Virginia, arising from Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.
His Virginia trial starts in July and his Washington trial is scheduled for September.
Manafort has pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiring to launder money, bank and tax fraud and failing to register as a foreign agent for the pro-Russia Ukraine government.
None of the charges relate to work he performed on the 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump has denied that his campaign colluded with Russia, and called Mueller’s investigation a witch hunt.
Ellis had previously expressed skepticism about whether Mueller had the power to bring charges against Manafort.
At a hearing in May, he mused that Mueller should not have “unfettered power” and told prosecutors they were only pursuing Manafort so that he would turn over dirt on Trump.
Trump later praised his comments and read them aloud during a speech to the National Rifle Association.
At the May hearing, Ellis also demanded that prosecutors turn over to him an unredacted version of the classified August memo by Rosenstein which fleshed out the scope of Mueller’s powers, saying he needed it to inform his ruling.
In his opinion filed Tuesday, Ellis said that he still has strong concerns about the use of special counsels or prosecutors more generally.
“The Constitution’s system of checks and balances, reflected to some extent in the regulations at issue, are designed to ensure that no single individual or branch of government has plenary or absolute power,” he wrote. “The appointment of special prosecutors has the potential to disrupt these checks and balances, and to inject a level of toxic partisanship into investigation of matters of public importance.”
He also reiterated that Trump, and not Manafort, is the target in Mueller’s sights, saying “even a blind person can see that the true target of the Special Counsel’s investigation is President Trump.”
Manafort has been held in a jail in Virginia since the federal judge overseeing the Washington case revoked his bond on June 15, after prosecutors presented evidence during a court hearing of Manafort’s alleged efforts to influence witnesses’ testimony while he was under house arrest. (Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Nathan Layne Editing by James Dalgleish and Tom Brown)