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Manafort just lost a case that would have undermined Mueller’s probe

Manafort still has to face 44 charges and a combined 305 years of jail time.

Former Trump Campaign manager Paul Manafort leaves a courthouse following a hearing on April 4, 2018.
Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort leaves a courthouse following a hearing on April 4, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort tried to use a civil case to block criminal charges special counsel Robert Mueller filed against him as part of his Russia probe. Manafort failed miserably.

On Friday, a federal judge dismissed a long-shot civil lawsuit that Manafort had filed in January. This means that Mueller, who is leading the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, retains his broad power to investigate any potential crimes he uncovers during his investigation.

The case was widely seen as an attempt by Manafort to avoid the 44 charges he is facing tied to alleged money laundering and tax crimes. So unless he reaches a deal with prosecutors, Manafort will have to face trial on charges that could put him in jail for a combined 305 years.

Manafort, who ran Donald Trump’s campaign for three months during the summer of 2016, is the highest-ranking official from the Trump campaign to be indicted by Mueller. Mueller initially brought extensive charges against Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime business partner, but Gates struck a plea deal with the special counsel in February.

Manafort’s original civil lawsuit argued that Mueller had gone beyond his mandate as special counsel in bringing the charges since none are directly tied to the what Mueller is investigating: the 2016 presidential election and Russian interference. Manafort’s legal team wanted Mueller’s charges against Manafort blocked and a court order preventing him from bringing other non-election related charges.

That led to Mueller revealing on April 2 a redacted version of his mandate, which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein signed, in a court filing.

Rosenstein expressly told Mueller to look at Manafort’s business and financial dealings, including “payments he received” as part of his past work for the Ukrainian government.

In response, Manafort’s legal team changed their argument, instead saying Rosenstein had exceeded his authority by giving Mueller permission to look into “any matters that arose or may arise directly” from their investigation.

The federal judge, Amy Berman Jackson, voiced deep skepticism about the new strategy when Manafort’s lawyers unveiled it.

“I don’t really understand what is left of your case,” she said during an April 4 hearing.

Manafort will now have to face extensive criminal charges

On Friday, Berman Jackson followed through on this sentiment and dismissed the case, saying that after Manafort’s lawyers changed what they were asking for “it is not at all clear that there is any ... controversy left in the lawsuit for the Court to resolve.”

Berman Jackson is also overseeing one of the criminal cases against Manafort and is the judge who sentenced Manafort associate Alexander van der Zwaan to 30 days in prison for lying to federal investigators. Van der Zwaan lied about contact with a man who Mueller’s team says works with Russian intelligence groups.

Thus far, Mueller has reached deals with all of the Trump associates he’s indicted, with the exception of Manafort. The others have traded cooperation with his investigation and built cases against increasingly senior figures for reduced charges.

If Manafort flips, he would place Mueller at the very top of the Trump campaign hierarchy and put him inside Trump’s inner circle. That could potentially be critical for Mueller’s investigation, as Manafort was part of major Trump campaign decisions and would almost certainly be aware of any collusion with Russia.

With his civil case dismissed, Trump’s former campaign chair is potentially looking at a lifetime in jail as he contemplates cooperating with Mueller. For Manafort, the stakes have never been higher.