Paul Manafort to plead guilty, cooperate with Robert Mueller’s inquiry, US prosecutor says
The decision by Trump’s ex-campaign chairman to provide evidence in exchange for leniency is a stunning twist in the long-running inquiry into Russian collusion in the 2016 election
President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is pleading guilty to two criminal charges, under terms of a plea deal that includes his cooperation as a potential witness for special counsel Robert Mueller.
The decision by Manafort to provide evidence in exchange for leniency on sentencing, announced in court on Friday, is a stunning development in the long-running inquiry into whether any associates of US President Donald Trump may have conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
Manafort’s defenders have long insisted that he would not cooperate with Mueller, and did not know any incriminating information against the president.
Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said at the beginning of Friday’s plea hearing that Manafort has agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Speaking at the hearing before US District Court judge Amy Berman Jackson, Weissmann said the 17-page plea document included the terms of Manafort’s expected cooperation.
The deal will short-circuit Manafort’s trial scheduled for later this month.
A criminal information – a legal document filed by prosecutors to detail the criminal conduct to be admitted by the defendant – was filed in advance of the plea. The document shows Manafort intends to plead guilty to two crimes of the seven he faced at trial: conspiring to defraud the United States and conspiring to obstruct justice.
The document indicates he will admit to funnelling millions of dollars in payments into offshore accounts to conceal his income from the Internal Revenue Service.
The filing also offers new details about the various ways in which Manafort sought to surreptitiously lobby the US government and influence American public opinion toward Ukraine.
In 2012, Manafort set out to help his client, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, by tarnishing the reputation of Yanukovych’s political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, according to the document.
As part of his deal, the government plans to seize four properties, including a nearly US$2 million house in Arlington, Virginia, owned by one of Manafort’s daughters. The deal also calls for forfeiture of four financial accounts and a life insurance policy.
The move toward a guilty plea is another reversal for Manafort, who has fought vociferously – but unsuccessfully – against Mueller’s inquiry. The 69-year-old political consultant was convicted last month in federal court on charges of bank and tax fraud.
In-person jury selection for his Washington trial was set to start Monday, with opening statements scheduled for September 24. Any deal would not be final until Manafort admits guilt before the judge, who would need to approve the plea.
Another conviction would cap a dramatic fall for the international power broker and confidant of Republican presidents dating to Ronald Reagan. Manafort’s decision could be unwelcome news for Trump, who tapped the consultant to serve as his campaign chairman in June 2016 as he was securing the Republican presidential nomination.
Manafort’s cooperation with Mueller could provide investigators new evidence or leads to chase; a guilty plea, however, would prevent weeks’ worth of headlines about the trial in the month before congressional elections.
The long-time lobbyist resigned from his position as campaign chairman in August 2016 amid increasing scrutiny of his work on behalf of a Russia-friendly political party in Ukraine.
Over a 40-year career, Manafort redefined and expanded Washington’s influence industry domestically and internationally, parlaying successful campaigns into lobbying opportunities. But by the mid-2000s, there were signs that his consulting career had slumped, and at times his finances appeared to be shaky. It was in Ukraine that he revived both – in ways prosecutors say violated the law.
Both cases brought against Manafort by the special counsel stem from his work in Ukraine. The jury in Virginia found that Manafort hid millions of dollars he made in Ukraine to avoid paying taxes and then lied to get loans when the political party that was paying him was ousted from power and the funding dried up.
In the trial scheduled in Washington, Manafort faces charges of conspiring against the United States, money laundering, failing to register as a lobbyist, making false statements and conspiring to obstruct justice by trying to influence witnesses.
Manafort had the choice to consolidate both cases into one but declined. He had been jailed since June as a result of the witness-tampering charges.
He has yet to be sentenced in Virginia, where legal experts say he faces eight to 10 years in prison under federal guidelines on the eight of 18 counts on which he was convicted. A mistrial was declared on the remaining 10 charges after jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict.
It is unclear how a guilty plea might alter his ultimate sentence, and some lawyers have questioned whether he is focused on winning a reprieve elsewhere. Law enforcement officials have come to suspect that Manafort hopes he will be pardoned by the president, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
Trump has sought advice from his lawyers on the possibility of pardoning Manafort and other aides accused of crimes, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani previously said, and was counselled against pardoning anyone involved in the Mueller probe. The president agreed to wait at least until the investigation concludes, Giuliani has said.
The decision by Trump’s one-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen to plead guilty last month in a federal investigation in Manhattan particularly angered the president, who denounced him as a “flipper”.
Earlier this year, Manafort derided Gates, his former business partner, for striking a deal with prosecutors that provided him leniency in exchange for testimony against his former partner.
“I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence,” Manafort said in February.
Kevin M. Downing, a lawyer for Manafort, also said this summer that there was “no chance” his client would flip and cooperate with prosecutors.
That posture drew plaudits from Trump, who praised his former campaign chairman for his unwillingness to cooperate with the special counsel.
Prosecutors “applied tremendous pressure on him and ... he refused to ‘break’ – make up stories in order to get a ‘deal’,” the president tweeted last month. “Such respect for a brave man!”