President Trump slammed Robert Mueller's team before a massive audience in Texas on Friday, hours after a federal judge rebuked the special counsel's office at a hearing for ex-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
At a tense hearing at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, the judge said Mueller should not have "unfettered power" in his Russian Federation probe and that the charges against Manafort did not arise from the investigation into Moscow's alleged meddling in the 2016 USA election.
Although Mueller's authority has been tested in court before, Friday's hearing was notable for District Judge T.S. Ellis' decision to wade into the divisive political debate around the investigation. "It is a witch hunt".
"You really care about what information Mr. Manafort can give you to lead you to Mr. Trump and an impeachment - or whatever", he said, according to Fox News.
Ellis called out Mueller's lawyers on their motive in prosecuting Manafort for crimes that allegedly occurred long before the 2016 campaign. "The vernacular is 'to sing, '" he said, or "tighten the screws".
"You don't really care about Mr. Manafort's bank fraud", Judge Ellis said during the hearing.
Ellis suggested that the case was meant to pressure Trump's former campaign manager to "sing" and squeeze information that could be used against the president.
Government lawyer Michael Dreeben argued that Mueller's mandate is broad, and that Manafort fits within that jurisdiction because of his ties to both the Trump campaign and to Ukrainian and Russian officials. "And that's not a fair situation", Trump said of the investigators on the special counsel's team. "We are not separate from the Justice Department".
That argument provoked Ellis' ire to an extent and prompted him to question the wisdom of granting unfettered power to a special counsel with a $10 million budget.
The judge added that the court doesn't want anyone to have "unfettered power". Manafort's attorney Downing indicated his support for such a move, which would end any leverage by the special counsel over his client.
He lost a civil suit making similar complaints about the special counsel's investigation last week.
A federal judge said Special Counsel Robert Mueller should not have "unfettered power" in probing ties between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russian Federation, and accused Mueller of using criminal cases to pressure Trump's allies to turn against him.
Ellis also presided over several espionage cases, including the prosecution of Larry Franklin, an intelligence analyst convicted of passing secrets to Israel, as well as the failed prosecution of two employees of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC who were the go-betweens with Israeli intelligence. Ellis withheld his ruling and will issue a written ruling later.
Though he faces another criminal case in DC federal court, Manafort refused the prosecutors' earlier request to move these charges out of Ellis' district and combine them with the DC case. Prosecutors also wanted to bring the Virginia charges in the District of Columbia, arguing it would be more efficient.
Manafort has been charged in Virginia with tax and bank fraud. Manafort declined to waive his right to have the charges adjudicated in Virginia.