Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, pleaded guilty Friday to federal conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, prosecutors said Friday, marking a stunning about-face for the former Trump deputy.
The plea deal, unveiled in federal court in Washington, will allow Manafort, 69, to avoid a second trial on charges stemming from his lucrative work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine before he joined the Trump campaign and his subsequent attempts to tamper with witnesses in the case.
As part of his plea deal, Manafort agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Andrew Weissmann, one of the lawyers on Mueller’s team, said in court that Manafort already had participated in at least one sit-down with them.
That cooperation, Weissmann said, has “led us to today.” The precise nature of that cooperation wasn’t spelled out in court papers or during the hearing. The plea deal requires Manafort to answer prosecutors’ questions and provide requested documents to federal investigators.
Manafort, wearing a dark suit and purple tie, spoke in subdued tones during the hourlong hearing before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson. The gravity of the moment was made plain when he said simply, “I plead guilty” after being asked how he wanted to proceed on charges of conspiring against the United States and obstructing justice.
The move was an abrupt turn for Manafort. His legal team had long indicated the political operative had no plans to plead guilty or cooperate with Mueller. He had already waged an expensive legal battle that culminated last month with a federal jury in Virginia finding him guilty on eight charges related to a long-running tax and bank fraud scheme.
As part of Friday’s plea, the remaining charges in the two indictments he faced — including 10 counts that jurors deadlocked on during the last trial — eventually will be dropped.
No sentencing date was set. When it does take place, Manafort is likely to face a stiff prison term that legal experts predicted could be around 10 years. Under the deal, he must also forfeit several properties worth millions of dollars, including his apartment in Trump Tower.
Manafort is the fourth Trump campaign worker or administration official to plead guilty in Mueller’s probe. All four, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, have agreed to cooperate as part of their deals.
A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment after the hearing.
Kevin Downing, a lawyer for Manafort, said his client had accepted responsibility for his actions. “He wanted to make sure his family remained safe and live a good life,” Downing said.
Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, issued a statement that said “once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign. The reason: the president did nothing wrong.”
Although Manafort served only a few months as Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016, he could prove to be a key witness in Mueller’s investigation of potential links between the president’s associates and the Kremlin. Manafort has ties to Russian oligarchs and politicians; as campaign chairman he oversaw Trump’s long-shot presidential bid during a key period.
Prosecutors are sure to zero in on Manafort’s attendance at a meeting of campaign officials in June 2016 aimed at obtaining derogatory information from a Kremlin-linked lawyer about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic party’s presidential nominee. Among those who also attended that gathering in Trump Tower were the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Mueller may also be interested in exploring the altering of language in the Republican Party platform just before the 2016 convention that was critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The plea agreement does not limit Manafort’s cooperation to Mueller’s team. He may have information of interest to other investigators; federal prosecutors in New York, for example, recently secured a plea deal with Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who admitted to violating campaign finance laws. At his plea hearing, Cohen said that Trump directed him to arrange payments to buy the silence of two former paramours, including the porn actress Stormy Daniels.
Trump is sure to be displeased by Manafort’s cooperation. The president last month praised Manafort for refusing to buckle under legal pressure.
“One of the reasons I respect Paul Manafort so much is he went through that trial,” Trump told Fox News last month. He told reporters at the time that Manafort’s trial “doesn’t involve me, but it’s a very sad thing.”
He has consistently called the Mueller probe a “witch hunt,” and criticized Cohen after he pleaded guilty.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” he tweeted. He told Fox News he thought that “flipping” ought to be outlawed.
Democrats praised the plea deal. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, called it “another victory for Mueller” but noted that Trump has not ruled out issuing a pardon to Manafort and others convicted in the investigation.
“We must reserve judgment on the value of his cooperation, given he’s had joint defense agreement with Trump, hopes for a pardon and has admitted to obstructing justice,” Schiff said in a tweet.
Manafort was scheduled to stand trial in Washington on charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering, acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, making false statements and obstruction of justice.
In last month’s trial in Virginia, Manafort was found guilty of eight charges of bank and tax fraud related to his extensive political work in Ukraine from 2006 through 2014. Prosecutors alleged that Manafort hid tens of millions of dollars in income from the U.S. government that he used to fund a lavish lifestyle. When his lucrative Ukrainian business dried up, Manafort began lying on bank loan applications to keep the cash flowing, prosecutors said.
The indictment in Washington dealt with many of the same underlying financial frauds, including Manafort’s laundering $30 million to buy property, personal goods and services, and allegations he cheated the U.S. government out of $15 million in taxes. The case also focused heavily on Manafort’s decision to disguise his lobbying for Ukraine, his failure to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent and attempts to mislead the department about his work.
Manafort admitted that he viewed shrouding his foreign ties as “integral to the effectiveness of the lobbying offensive he orchestrated for Ukraine,” according to court papers. Registering with the Justice Department, he admitted, would have “thwarted” his efforts to influence U.S. politicians and the public.
The obstruction of justice charge stemmed from an effort by Manafort and a former business associate in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik, a dual Russian and Ukrainian citizen, to “influence, delay and prevent the testimony” of two witnesses in the planned second trial. Mueller’s prosecutors have alleged in court papers that Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence services.
Since being appointed in May 2017 after the abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey by the president, Mueller has been working at a brisk clip. He obtained a guilty plea from Richard Gates, a Manafort business associate and his deputy on the campaign, to charges of conspiring against the United States and making a false statement. Gates testified against Manafort at his trial.
George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy advisor to President Trump's campaign, was sentenced last week to 14 days in jail after pleading guilty to lying to federal agents. His suspicious conversations with a foreign diplomat in 2016 triggered the FBI’s initial probe into potential links between the campaign and Kremlin.
Flynn, the former national security advisor, also pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents. He has not yet been sentenced.
Mueller has also obtained indictments of a dozen Russian intelligence officers on charges of hacking Democratic Party organizations and making sure the stolen information became public. He also has charged three Russian companies and 13 Russian citizens in a widespread effort to wield social media messages, fake online personas and staged rallies to sow discord in the United States.