WASHINGTON—A federal judge expressed doubt Thursday over efforts by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to have criminal charges against him dropped, but she appeared more receptive to his request to dismiss one of the counts.
At a sometimes testy hearing over three hours, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson questioned lawyers for Mr. Manafort and special counsel Robert Mueller, who has charged Mr. Manafort in Washington and Virginia with failing to report his work for the government of Ukraine between 2006 and 2015 and with not paying taxes on the millions of dollars he allegedly earned from that work.
Mr. Manafort has pleaded not guilty and filed motions to dismiss both cases, arguing that they fall outside the bounds of Mr. Mueller’s task of investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Mr. Manafort claims Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s order appointing Mr. Mueller did not give the special counsel authority to investigate the allegations covered in the Manafort indictments.
Judge Jackson, who is overseeing the Washington case, said in court she found it unlikely that Mr. Rosenstein would have appointed Mr. Mueller without explaining what matters he would be examining.
“You’re telling me he didn’t tell him what it was about?” she asked Mr. Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, her voice rising.
Judge Jackson also said Mr. Manafort appeared to be basing his argument on internal Justice Department regulations governing the appointment of a special counsel that are generally meant to help organize agency processes, not to provide a basis for defendants to challenge their cases.
“Why does that matter in a court of law?” she said.
In court papers, Mr. Mueller’s lawyers have said they have authorization to investigate the Manafort charges, citing among other things an August memo from Mr. Rosenstein laying out avenues of inquiry. Mr. Mueller’s office said the probe “would naturally cover ties that a former Trump campaign manager had to Russian-associated political operatives, Russian-backed politicians, and Russian oligarchs.”
In court on Thursday, Mr. Downing took issue with the timing of the Rosenstein memo, noting that it came months after Mr. Mueller’s appointment in May 2017 and after related search warrants had been executed.
“It seems to me to be very much an after-the-fact memo,” Mr. Downing said.
Judge Berman appeared more receptive, however, to another argument from Mr. Manafort’s legal team, that two of the counts in the indictment against Mr. Manafort essentially charge him with the same crime.
Mr. Manafort was charged with lying about his lobbying work in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He was also charged with lying about that work in violation of a law that forbids false statements to the federal government.
A prosecution on both counts, Mr. Manafort’s lawyers argued, would seek to punish him twice for the same alleged offense.
In considering that motion, Judge Jackson had pointed questions for Mr. Mueller’s lawyers, asking why the two charges were not duplicative. An attorney with the special counsel’s office said the charges were distinct, and that conduct that violated one law did not always violate the other.
Judge Jackson also considered a third argument from Mr. Manafort’s defense team, seeking to challenge a count of money laundering.
Mr. Manafort is charged with laundering millions of dollars that he allegedly earned through his unregistered Ukraine work. Mr. Manafort’s team argued that the work itself was lawful, so money earned from it isn’t necessarily tainted.
Judge Jackson said that question appeared to be one for a jury to decide, rather than her.
Write to Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com