Federal judge turns up the heat on Mueller’s legal team

Mueller and Trump

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team was questioned by a federal judge earlier this week. The focus was on its claims that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort intentionally lied to investigators, according to a partially recacted court transcript released on Thursday. 

Manafort avoided a second trial in the nation’s capital last year because he agreed to cooperate with investigators. He allegedly lied to prosecutors about five separate topics, including Manafort’s contact with administration officials information “pertinent to another Department of Justice investigation,” and a $125,000 wire transfer to a firm working for Manafort.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson repeatedly and bluntly pressed prosecutors to explain why Manafort’s misstatements, including some that he corrected voluntarily, should affect his upcoming sentencing. This happened at a closed door meeting on Monday. 

Judge Jackson openly wondered whether prosecutors had come after Manafort with a series of difficult and irrelevant questions during the roughly 50 hours of interviews that followed his plea deal.

“Putting aside whether it has to be established and whether we have to establish all the elements of [a criminal false statements statute], why is this important?” Jackson asked.

“I mean, basically what you’re saying is, you were just asking about something and it turned — it snowballed into a series of false statements,” Jackson continued. “But was there something about his — if I agree with you that he was lying about that, that was material to what you were doing? What was the importance of asking him about the payment in the first place?”

At the hearing, prosecutors maintained that Manafort also lied about his interactions with Russian-Ukrainian political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik, who has ties to Russian intelligence. 

Top Mueller deputy Andrew Weissmann told Jackson that Manafort’s connections to Kilimnik “goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s Office is investigating. … In [August] 2016 there is an in-person meeting with someone who … is understood by the FBI, assessed to be — have a relationship with Russian intelligence.”

Jackson acknowledged that Manafort, after pleading guilty to conspiring with Kilimnik, offered an “exculpatory version of Kilimnik’s state of mind” that “isn’t necessarily consistent with what one would call full and forthright cooperation.”

Judge Jackson did also add that Manafort quickly corrected some of his statements on the matter, undercutting prosecutors’ claims that Manafort had acted intentionally to mislead them.

“Given [Manafort’s] correction after consultation with counsel, why would this be something that we would characterize as the crime of making an intentionally false statement to the FBI, or even just a law of significance for acceptance of responsibility in sentencing purposes?” Jackson asked.

At the end of the proceeding, Jackson focused on the prosecutors’ contention that Manafort had lied about his contacts with the Trump administration.

“And of all of them, this is the one where I have the most difficulty figuring out where the real contradiction is of moment to the investigation,” Jackson said.

Manafort’s “outreach appears to have been two people outside the administration who themselves would have contacts within,” Jackson said. “So, again, I want you to point to the specific statement in a 302 [FBI witness report] or a grand jury statement that is the precise question and answer you think I should denote as false. And, you know, it does seem to be that there are indications that he may have bragged that he still had sway or offered to assist people or to lobby. But do we have direct evidence of contacts that contradict a denial of a contact?”

Credit: Fox News