For the first time, a federal judge has begun to take a look at the scope of Robert Mueller’s authority as special counsel, and it might not be good news for liberals who want to see Mueller burn TrumpWorld to the ground. Because while U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson has yet to make any official rulings on Mueller’s witch hunt, her stated concerns in a hearing on Thursday gave many observers the impression that she – like many other Americans – believes that Mueller’s leash may need to be yanked back in a tad.
The hearing surrounded the criminal case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is being charged with a variety of crimes that have absolutely nothing to do with Russia’s interference into the 2016 election. Manafort’s lawyers argue that while Mueller may have been given authority to investigate both the interference and any issues that “may arise” as a result of the inquiry, that authority was not actually Rod Rosenstein’s to give. They insist that Justice Department regulations require that a special counsel be held to a “specific factual matter” when carrying out an investigation; as such, Rosenstein’s blank canvas is too broad to legally stand.
“That’s a fair point,” Jackson said in court. “I don’t think that, as good as he is, that the deputy attorney general can see into the future.”
It’s unlikely that any debate over the scope of Mueller’s investigation will rescue Manafort from the 23 charges hanging over his head, but the mere fact that his lawyers are bringing the special counsel’s authority into question in front of a federal judge could be meaningful going forward. Up to this point, Mueller has been acting more or less free from any legal or ethical restraints. Rosenstein, who is either biased against Trump himself or eager to avoid being grilled by congressional Democrats, essentially abdicated his own authority. He handed the case off to Mueller, said “call me when you’re done,” and washed his hands clean of the whole business.
What makes this worse, as Manafort’s lawyers contend, is that Mueller hasn’t even been satisfied with staying within the extraordinarily broad mandate he’s been given.
“I don’t know how they can violate these regulations and we can still be here and it doesn’t matter,” Manafort’s attorney said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben, however, said that everything about the special counsel’s appointment was on the up-and-up. “It’s not a blank check,” he said of the mandate. “It’s not carte blanche. It reflects confirmation of what was within our scope at the time of our appointment.”
Whether it’s this judge or another, someone needs to reign this silliness in before Mueller starts investigating Trump for unpaid parking tickets dating back to 1977. We’re already well outside the scope of the mandate when it comes to Manafort; we shudder to think how far Mueller will go when he really starts getting desperate to make a case.