US President Donald Trump‘s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has pleaded guilty to two federal crimes after cutting a deal with prosecutors and agreeing to cooperate with the special counsel’s Russia probe.
The move allows him to avoid a second criminal trial and ends Manafort’s more than year-long fight against investigators in the Russia investigation.
The plea deal requires him to cooperate “fully and truthfully” with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign worked with Moscow to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Manafort’s guilty plea comes less than a month after the 69-year-old was convicted of eight financial crimes in a separate trial in Virginia.
Charges tied to Ukraine work
Under the terms of Friday’s plea deal, prosecutors dropped the bulk of the charges against Manafort, filing new paperwork that includes just two charges: conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The charges do not relate to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which is a central issue in the special counsel’s investigation into possible contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
“This is for conduct that dates back many years and everybody should remember that,” Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, said.
The counts derived from Manafort’s work for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow political party between around 2005 and 2015.
Prosecutors say Manafort acted illegally as a lobbyist for Yanukovych and earned tens of millions of dollars, which he laundered through Cyprus and other offshore banking locations and did not pay taxes on.
The indictment said he laundered more than $30m into the United States to by properties and luxury goods and “cheated the United States out of over $15 million in taxes”.
Manafort could eventually be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison as a part of the deal, and will forfeit four real estate properties worth millions of dollars, as well as bank accounts and a life insurance policy.
The former Trump aide has aggressively fought the charges against him and taken shots at his co-defendant, Rick Gates, who cut a plea deal with prosecutors earlier this year that included a cooperation agreement.
‘Absolutely nothing to do with Trump’
Trump has denied any collusion with the Russians by his campaign and has long denounced the special counsel’s investigation as a political witch-hunt. Moscow denies US intelligence agency allegations that it interfered in the political process.
On Friday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the Manafort case has nothing to do with Trump.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign,” she said. “It is totally unrelated.”
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, said in a statement that “the president did nothing wrong”.
“Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign.”
Possible Trump pardon?
It was not immediately clear what Manafort’s cooperation with the special counsel will provide to the Russia investigation.
Manafort was most notably present at a meeting held by campaign executives, including Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner, with a Russian lawyer who had offered them “dirt” on Trump’s Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. That meeting is now a focus of the Mueller investigation.
Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, DC, called Friday’s plea deal “a critical development”.
“Now, Trump’s son-in-law says they didn’t get any dirt. Well, is that true? Paul Manafort would know if that’s true,” Culhane said.
She also noted that Manafort was the most prominent former Trump associate to plead guilty to crimes and agree to cooperate with the special counsel’s office.
Giuliani told the Reuters news agency on Friday that a guilty plea to avoid a second trial would not crush Manafort’s chances of receiving an eventual presidential pardon.
“It’s not going to hurt him if he pleads guilty. Usually it helps you get a pardon down the road. It shows you’ve admitted your guilt,” he said before a deal was announced.
Trump has repeatedly spoken out in Manafort’s defence – while also seeking to distance himself from his onetime associate, saying in June that he “came into the campaign very late and was with us for a short period of time”.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” he tweeted in August, one day after Manafort was convicted of the eight financial charges.
The president drew a comparison to his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who on the same day as the Manafort conviction pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other charges.
“Unlike Michael Cohen, he (Manafort) refused to ‘break’ – make up stories in order to get a ‘deal’,” Trump wrote at the time. “Such respect for a brave man!”