Special counsel Robert Mueller is trying to head off the Paul Manafort defense team from questioning his prosecutors over press leaks.
Mr. Mueller filed papers in U.S. District Court in Virginia opposing a request from Manafort attorney Kevin Downing to hold an investigative hearing into the rash of press reports on Mr. Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager.
Mr. Downing cited 10 stories, sourced to unnamed people who implicated Mr. Manafort in possible criminal activity. He contends the information came from grand jury testimony, which would be illegal for a prosecutor to leak.
In a footnote to his filing, Mr. Mueller’s lead prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, makes a preemptive argument before District Court Judge T. S. Ellis III. If the judge does allow a hearing, Mr. Downing should not be allowed to question special counsel prosecutors or other Justice Department lawyers.
“To the extent Manafort contemplates testimony by Department of Justice attorneys, he would have to overcome the rule that testimony from prosecutors trying criminal cases is ‘disfavored,’” Mr. Weissmann’s brief says, citing previous court rulings.
Mr. Weissmann was in the Justice Department as chief of its fraud division before Mr. Mueller recruited him in May 2017.
Judge Ellis has set a May 25 hearing date.
Mr. Mueller may have reason to worry: Judge Ellis rebuked his prosecution strategy versus Mr. Manafort.
From the bench May 4, he said Mr. Mueller brought charges in financial transactions that happened years ago, before Mr. Manafort joined the Trump campaign. Since they have nothing to do with Russian election interference, Mr. Mueller’s real intent is to convince Mr. Manafort to nail President Trump, the judge said.
Mr. Manafort was indicted on charges of money laundering and failing to report on tax returns the millions he earned from advising pro-Moscow politicians in Ukraine. The indictment does not mention Russian meddling in the 2016 election which is Mr. Mueller’s principal scope.
There is an interesting briefing footnote.
Mr. Weissmann says he made a separate private filing with the judge which “provides the court additional information concerning one article.”
Mr. Weissmann does not identify “the one article” out of the 10 stories cited by Mr. Downing.
Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican, and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has asked the Justice Department to provide information on a meeting Mr. Weissmann conducted with news reporters last year when he headed the fraud division.
As one of 10 stories, Mr. Downing cites a February 2017 article by the New York Times which said the U.S. owned a year’s worth of intercepts and phone records between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence.
On its face, the article is evidence of collusion. But former FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress that the story was wrong and that he warned senior leaders not to believe it.
The New York Times article said, “The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls.”
The story said Mr. Manafort communicated with Russian and Ukrainian intelligence.
But Mr. Downing’s brief says he has asked Mr. Mueller for any evidence that Mr. Manafort communicated with Russian officials. Mr. Mueller reported back that he had none, Mr. Downing said.
“Despite multiple discoveries…. requests in this regard, the special counsel has not produced any materials to the defense––no tapes, notes, transcripts or any other material evidencing surveillance or intercepts of communications between Mr. Manafort and Russian intelligence officials, Russian government officials (or any other foreign officials). The office of special counsel has advised that there are no materials responsive to Mr. Manafort’s requests.”
Of the 10 stories cited, Mr. Downing said, “This is but a small sampling of the improper disclosures made by government officials regarding the defendant,” Mr. Downing said.