US judge questions special counsel Robert Mueller's powers in Paul Manafort case

Manafort (left) and his lawyer Kevin Downing walk to their car after the hearing. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (REUTERS) - A federal judge on Friday (May 4) sharply criticised Special Counsel Robert Mueller's criminal case in Virginia against President Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and openly questioned whether Mueller exceeded his prosecutorial powers by bringing it.

"I don't see what relationship this indictment has with anything the special counsel is authorised to investigate," US District Judge TS Ellis in the Eastern District of Virginia said.

At tense hearing at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, the judge said Mueller should not have "unfettered power" in his Russia probe and that the charges against Manafort did not arise from the investigation into Moscow's alleged meddling in the 2016 US election.

Manafort is facing charges in both Virginia and Washington. The Virginia case charges him with offences including tax and bank fraud. The other case accuses him of conspiring to launder money and failing to register as a foreign agent when he lobbied for the pro-Russia Ukrainian government.

None of the charges relate, however, to Trump's 2016 presidential campaign or possible collusion with Russia. Trump has denied any collusion.

Lawyers for Manafort asked the judge in the Virginia case to dismiss an indictment filed against him in what was their third effort to beat back criminal charges by attacking Mueller's authority.

The judge questioned why Manafort's case there could not be handled by the US attorney's office in Virginia, rather than the special counsel's office.

He also asked the special counsel's office to share privately with him a copy of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosentein's August 2017 memo elaborating on the scope of Mueller's Russia probe. He said the current version he has has been heavily redacted.

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