Meet Manafort trial ringmaster T.S. Ellis

(CNN) — It may not be a coincidence that both P.T. Barnum and T.S. Ellis use only their first initials. Federal Judge Thomas Selby Ellis III will carry on the tradition of the legendary ringmaster as he presides over the first trial from the special counsel’s Russia probe.

The trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort will have a courtroom packed with media and spectators. Few judges might relish that attention. Yet Ellis, who has overseen cases involving congressional corruption and the “American Taliban,” is one of the few.

Though no electronics are allowed in his courthouse, Ellis has had a knack for conjuring shock, awe and tweetable moments in the courtroom so far with Manafort.

“You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” Ellis told the special counsel in May. Trump is “what you’re really interested in.”

In his 30 years on the bench in the Eastern District of Virginia, Ellis has developed a reputation for being long-winded and sharp-minded. He takes special delight in toying with attorneys. His sense of humor can turn to sternness in a second. And his courtroom antics don’t always tip his hand to his legal thinking. For instance, after scolding Robert Mueller’s office, he sided with the special counsel anyway.

“Those of us who’ve been around for a long time take some of those observations with a grain of salt,” William Cummings, a criminal defense attorney who’s practiced in Ellis’ district for 54 years, said about an early Manafort hearing where Ellis appeared to sympathize with the defense arguments. “I don’t think you can read that as more than testing the government and expressing concerns that are publicly being expressed to see what kind of reaction he gets.”

In a criminal trial like Manafort’s, the 12-person jury commands the ultimate decision on the former Trump campaign chairman’s fate.

But Ellis’ presence will contribute greatly to the tone and pace of the trial. He’ll have ample opportunity to keep the lawyers in check and will decide upon legal questions they raise. He also took the lead in questioning potential jurors Tuesday about their impartiality before they were chosen.

If the jury reaches a guilty verdict, Ellis would be the sole decider of Manafort’s sentence, and have virtual free range to set it how he chooses. Manafort, 69, faces allegations he committed bank fraud and hid money from federal authorities as he spent millions on luxury goods. He faces a sentence of more than 300 years in prison if convicted on all 18 counts. He has denied all charges against him.

In the courtroom, Ellis perches several steps above prosecutors and defendants, with his clerks providing a buffer between them in the tranquil dark cherry courtroom. When an FBI agent testified in a pretrial hearing for Manafort last month, Ellis paced around his leather chair, listening and occasionally cutting in to guide the attorneys in their questioning.

“Next question,” he interjected several times. Several times he asked the witness his own questions. He hardly looked up. At another point, he cut off an attorney’s question. “You’re leading,” Ellis said. He then suggested to the prosecutor a different phrasing.

“He is very interactive with the parties, never reluctant to probe vigorously with respect to issues where he has questions,” said Timothy Belevetz of the law firm Holland & Knight.

Scolded special counsel’s office

Ellis expects lawyers to come prepared — because he will make sure he is. Preparedness is among one of the many traits he learned years ago in his legal practice, he’s quick to remind the attorneys before him. He’s also prone to telling personal stories and alluding to unrelated cases when he recognizes people in the courtroom from his past work.

Early in Manafort’s proceedings, Ellis criticized the special counsel’s office lawyers for thinking they could try Manafort’s case without ever having practiced law in his district. (The top trial lawyers prosecuting Manafort have the most experience in Brooklyn’s federal court.) At the next hearing, the special counsel’s team had brought aboard Uzo Asonye, an assistant US attorney experienced with Ellis in the Alexandria federal court.

“Mr. Asonye has some experience here. Is that right, Mr. Asonye?” Ellis said at a start of a May hearing for Manafort’s case. “So he can tell you some interesting things.”

The sidebars are only part of Ellis’ idiosyncrasies. He also loves the intellectual exercise of arguing legal nuance.

“Most every prosecutor would tell a story about being forced to brief issues ad nauseum including during trial,” said Scott Fredericksen, a former section chief in the Eastern District of Virginia who now handles criminal white-collar cases at the law firm Foley & Lardner.

No stranger to high-profile cases, in 2009 Ellis presided over the case of former US Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, a Democrat who was convicted of corruption charges. In 2017, Ellis vacated some of the charges after the Supreme Court threw out the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and limited the types of conduct that can support charges of corruption.

Coincidentally, Amy Berman Jackson argued for Jefferson at the trial with Ellis. She is now a federal judge in DC who is presiding over Manafort’s related case and has given Manafort’s team a consistently tough response.

Though they initially appeared to feel differently about Manafort, Berman Jackson and Ellis have agreed so far on nearly every legal request Manafort has made to them. They’ve both denied Manafort’s attempts to throw out evidence prosecutors collected from Manafort’s apartment and storage unit, and both have defended Mueller’s legal authority in their opinions.

Some court-watchers initially suspected Ellis might split with Berman Jackson and bat down Mueller’s case after Manafort argued the special counsel was out of bounds with allegations largely unrelated to the presidential election.

“You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud,” Ellis said in court earlier this year.

The comments jolted Washington, and Trump himself made Ellis a cause célèbre. The President that day read news stories about Ellis’ comments at an NRA event, using them to pile on to his “witch hunt” refrain.

Almost two months later, Ellis ruled on the question the opposite of the way Trump wished. Ellis warned the special counsel to stay away from politics, yet defended Mueller’s authority in the Manafort case and under the US Constitution.

CIA and ‘American Taliban’

Several lawyers said Ellis appears to lean toward conservativism, though the Reagan appointee’s politics aren’t widely known. In a few past high-profile cases involving national security, he was tough toward defendants.

In 2006, Ellis ruled in favor of the George W. Bush administration, dismissing a case brought by Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent who claimed he had been abused by the CIA’s “black renditions” teams in 2003.

Ellis said that while the dismissal “deprives” El-Masri of an “American judicial forum” to vindicate his claims, his private interests “must give way to the national interest in preserving state secrets.”

In 2002, Ellis heard the case of John Walker Lindh, who earned the moniker of “American Taliban” as he faced trial after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Though the prosecutors had asked Ellis to approve a plea deal that would limit Lindh’s jail time, they had some concern he might disagree with the deal. Ellis sentenced the 21-year-old from California to the maximum 20 years in prison under Lindh’s plea.

“Life is making choices and living with the consequences,” Ellis told Lindh in open court. “You made a bad choice to join the Taliban.”

Ellis’ court regularly hears high-profile cases, especially criminal, because several government agencies are located in Virginia.

Born in 1940 in Bogotá, Colombia, Ellis graduated from Princeton with an engineering degree. He served as an aviator in the US Navy, then studied law at Harvard Law School and Oxford University. When assessing the functions of American special prosecutors like Mueller in court, Ellis has grown wistful about his younger days in Britain and compared the US approach to British investigative commissions.

In Manafort’s case, Elllis is likely to take a more workmanlike approach. He told federal prosecutors recently they needed to cut a week off their planned presentation.

“Do you have any idea how many bank frauds and income tax false statements (trials) I’ve heard?” he asked. “None of them last three weeks. None.”