Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, who has been indicted on charges of money laundering and lying about his ties to a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party, is suing the Justice Department to try to end special counsel Robert Muller’s Russia investigation.
The complaint, filed in federal court on Wednesday, names the Department of Justice, Robert Mueller, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel after Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May 2017.
It makes two arguments: 1) The special counsel investigation is unlawful, and therefore should be dissolved; and 2) even if the special counsel investigation were lawful, the charges against Manafort are outside the scope of the investigation and thus are not valid.
Legal experts say the lawsuit will most likely go nowhere. A Justice Department spokesperson said, “The lawsuit is frivolous but the defendant is entitled to file what he wants.” The special counsel’s office declined to comment.
Experts see it as more of a public relations stunt aimed at further bolstering the growing campaign among some conservative Trump allies to discredit the Mueller probe.
“I think Manafort is throwing a Hail Mary with this lawsuit,” Andy Wright, a former White House lawyer who is now at Savannah Law School, told me in an interview.
Here’s what’s going on.
Manafort is asking the court to rein in the Mueller probe
The first part of Manafort’s legal complaint argues that Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller, didn’t actually have the legal authority to appoint a special counsel. If the judge agrees with Manafort, then Mueller could lose his job.
That would make Trump and the conservatives who oppose the Mueller investigation really happy, but experts say it’s unlikely to happen because Rosenstein purposefully didn’t limit Mueller’s duties in his appointment.
Manafort’s complaint also argues that the charges Mueller brought against him should be dropped because they involve activities that Mueller wasn’t given the authority to investigate.
Mueller is supposed to be investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. But some charges against Manafort, like money laundering, have nothing to do with that and happened as far back as 2006 — way before Manafort ever worked for the Trump campaign. Hence, Manafort argues that Mueller has overstepped his legal authority in investigating and charging Manafort.
But while Manafort is correct that the charges against him are largely unrelated to the Trump-Russia investigation, that doesn’t mean Mueller isn’t allowed to investigate and prosecute him for those things.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s letter formally appointing the special counsel explicitly said Mueller’s team could investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
In other words, if Mueller and his team stumble upon evidence of other crimes — even ones completely unrelated to the Trump-Russia issue — they’re allowed to investigate them.
That’s why legal experts don’t think Manafort’s legal gambit will succeed in court. But it may succeed in the court of public opinion — and that might be the entire point.
This is mostly a public relations move
As I’ve written before, there is a growing chorus of conservatives in and out of government who are increasingly critical of Mueller personally and the Russia probe more broadly. Some are even saying Mueller should be fired.
Manafort’s lawsuit hits on this exact theme. That’s led legal experts to speculate that Manafort’s move was really meant to boost anti-Mueller conservatives. Lawfare’s Susan Hennessey tweeted that the lawsuit “might pass a laugh test enough to become a conservative talking point” but that “you have to squint really hard” to see any real legal merits to the complaint.
This move could very well add fuel to the fight against the Mueller probe. And if that’s the outcome, then Manafort’s move may work in his favor after all.