Paul Manafort Pleads Guilty, Agrees To Cooperate With Prosecutors
Updated at 12:45 p.m. ET
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty on Friday and agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Manafort entered his guilty plea to two felony counts during an hour-long hearing in federal court in Washington, DC. The plea took place three days before he was to face trial charges related to his lobbying work for Ukraine and alleged witness tampering.
The trial would have been Manafort's second; he was already convicted last month by a federal jury in Virginia on 8 of 18 counts of bank and tax fraud related to money he earned in Ukraine.
On Friday, prosecutors said the plea deal in Manafort's DC case includes an agreement to cooperate with investigators — a potentially ominous development for the president, who has repeatedly called Mueller's probe a "whitch hunt."
At the same time, Manafort's cooperation agreement does not include matters involving the Trump campaign, according to one person familiar with the case. The person asked not to be identified.
So it was not immediately clear what information Manafort might provide prosecutors. But he served as Trump's campaign chairman during the critical summer months 2016, and he attended the now-infamous meeting at Trump Tower that June with a Russian delegation offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
White House keeps at arm's length
Despite Manafort's job leading the campaign, the White House sought to distance itself on Friday from him and his case.
"This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign," said press secretary Sarah Sanders. "It is totally unrelated."
Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, echoed that idea, adding that "the president did nothing wrong."
During Manafort's Virginia trial, the president had spoken spoke warmly of him. He called Manafort a "good man" and said he had been unfairly targeted by the Justice Department--sparking questions of whether Trump might pardon him.
Giuliani has told NPR that Trump discussed a possible pardon earlier this summer, but he said the president agreed not to move forward with the idea.
Manafort's guilty plea Friday appears to set that question aside, for now.
As part of the deal, Manafort has agreed to forfeit four properties in New York and Virginia, as well as funds held in several bank and investment accounts and an insurance policy.
Ahead of the hearing, Mueller's office filed superseding criminal information, which spelled out the two counts to which Manafort has pleaded guilty: conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
It also contains around 40 pages of government exhibits, including emails, strategy documents and other evidence prosecutors would have likely presented during a trial.
Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in New York, says it's uncommon for criminal information to include that level of detail.
"One thing that we've seen is that the Mueller team only speaks through court filings and through court presentations—trial or oral arguments," Sandick said. "And so, they clearly want to communicate some of the evidence that they have into the public."
Sandick said one reason Mueller's team might want to do so is "in part a response to criticism of the investigation."
In other words: "'If you don't think we're doing something important, read this,'" he said of the filing.
Manafort, 69, earned tens of millions of dollars lobbying for foreign governments and spent that money freely, including on a $15,000 ostrich coat, landscaping and real estate.
But by 2016, his financial situation grew dire. He volunteered that year to work for free on the Trump campaign, shepherding the candidate through the Republican National Convention before being pushed aside as questions about his influence-peddling emerged.
The longtime political operator who had advised presidents from Gerald Ford to Trump has been incarcerated since mid-June, when D.C. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled he posed a flight risk and a danger to the community.
Behind bars in the Alexandria, Va., detention center, Manafort's dark hair has sprouted patches of gray. During his Virginia trial, he sometimes refused to wear socks because he didn't like the look of the white jail-issued socks with his dark footwear.
Manafort's legal team blamed most of his problems on former business partner Rick Gates, who pleaded guilty in February and testified against Manafort in Virginia.
"I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence," Manafort said after the Gates plea deal earlier this year.
A juror in the Virginia case said she discounted testimony from Gates but found the documents that prosecutors introduced to be "overwhelming" in favor of conviction. [Copyright 2018 NPR]