As Paul Manafort — the political consultant best known for his five-month stint as President Donald Trump's campaign manager during the 2016 election — continues to stand trial on criminal charges, a second character has emerged as the dominant force whose whims could play a decisive role in shaping the next stage of the lengthy, labyrinthine legal saga of the Trump-Russia scandal.
It is not Trump, himself. Nor is it special counsel Robert Mueller: the man overseeing the investigation into allegations of collusion with Russia that continue to follow Trump's campaign. In fact, the emerging star here seems to be U.S. District Judge T. S. Ellis, whose ongoing jibes follow a reputation for being tough on attorneys, yet seem to be disproportionately aimed at Mueller and those who criticize the president.
"As the proceedings enter their second week, the indisputable center of attention so far is the judge, T.S. Ellis III, whose cantankerous, jocular, impatient and verbose presence has shaped each step of the way," wrote the Los Angeles Times. Appointed to the bench by former President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Ellis has been outspoken from the get-go about his skepticism regarding Mueller's probe of Manafort, earning fulsome praise from Trump in the process.
In May, Ellis reprimanded Mueller's prosecutors by declaring that "you don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud. You really care about getting information Mr. Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr Trump and lead to his prosecution or impeachment," according to The Guardian. The judge later added, "We don’t want anyone in this country with unfettered power. It’s unlikely you’re going to persuade me the special prosecutor has power to do anything he or she wants. The American people feel pretty strongly that no one has unfettered power."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trump offered up Ellis' remarks as evidence that the special counsel's entire investigation was a partisan crusade against him, or a "witch hunt." The president even described Ellis as "something very special." However, if knowing that the president views him as his cheerleader worried Ellis, he has not given any indication.
On two occasions, the judge interrupted Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye to criticize his opening statement in the trial. Ellis has also unloaded on Mueller's team for dwelling on the details of how Manafort allegedly spent his ill-gotten gains. He also rushed prosecutors through questions amid their meticulous attempts to connect key dots in their case, including an effort to illustrate how an invoice appeared to have been falsified.
On at least one occasion, Ellis also criticized one of Manafort's defense attorneys for seeming slow to object to a prosecutor's question. Earlier in the trial, he took issue with the Manafort team's claim that detaining their client in the Alexandria Detention Center would present unspecified safety concerns, according to USA Today.
"Defense counsel has not identified any general or specific threat to defendant's safety," Ellis wrote. "They have not done so, because the professionals at the Alexandria Detention Center are very familiar with housing high-profile defendants, including foreign and domestic terrorists, spies and traitors."