Manafort Cooperating in Mueller Probe as Part of Plea Deal

WASHINGTON (CN) – Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort agreed Friday to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s sweeping 2016 election probe to avoid a second trial.

Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, leaves court after a May 23, 2018, hearing in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

“I plead guilty,” Manafort said at about noon in Washington, concluding a roughly hour-long hearing.

Copping to one count of conspiracy and one count of obstruction of justice for witness tampering, Manafort entered the plea in connection to a superseding criminal information Mueller’s office filed this morning.

The former lobbyist has waived his right to have counsel present during his sessions with the government, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson noted. If Manafort lies or commits other offenses for the duration of his cooperation, the deal is off.

Manafort’s decision to cooperate could complicate his efforts to obtain a pardon, if he wants one, Harvard law professor Alex Whiting said.

“It does not preclude a pardon but it makes it much more difficult politically and very unlikely,” Whiting said in an email. “I think Manafort must have concluded that he couldn’t count on the pardon. … And also maybe he realized that pardon would not cover state charges.”

As part of his deal, Manafort admitted to funneling more than $60 million of unregistered lobbying income from pro-Russian Ukrainians into offshore accounts, and hiding more than $15 million in taxes from the IRS.

Jailed since June in connection to his witness-tampering charge, Manafort wore a black suit, white shirt and purple tie as he stood beside defense attorney Richard Westling at the lectern.

A court security officer stood behind Manafort, as Jackson made sure he understood the rights he will waive by pleading guilty.

“I do,” Manafort repeated, as he waived his rights one by one.

Jackson informed Manafort Friday that he would remain detained until his sentencing, at which point the government will dismiss both the superseding indictment and the counts against Manafort that left a federal jury in Virginia partially deadlocked last month.

Manafort admitted to those charges as part of the plea agreement, even though they will be dismissed.

Prosecutors will also drop the five remaining charges against him in Washington.

Jackson walked Manafort through the implications of forgoing a trial, including his right to appeal.

“I understand,” Manafort said at the lectern, standing beside Westling.

Jackson also noted that his guilty plea today can be used against him in any future trial.

“Do you still want to plead guilty in this case,” Jackson asked.

“I do,” Manafort said.

Confirmation of Manafort’s cooperation marks a dramatic turn in Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference, and whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with that effort.

After the Virginia jury convicted Manafort of financial crimes last month, President Trump lauded his former campaign chief on social media.

“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” the president tweeted on Aug. 22. “Justice took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ – make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!”

In addition to uncertainty about what Manafort knows and has to offer Mueller’s team, it is unknown whether Manafort’s presence at the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 will factor into his cooperation.

“This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday of the plea deal. “It is totally unrelated.”

The president’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, downplayed Manafort’s deal as well.

“Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign,” Giuliani said. “The reason: the president did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth.

Outside the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse, Manafort’s attorney Kevin Downing said his client had accepted responsibility.

“He wanted to make sure his family was able to remain safe and live a good life,” Downing said. “He’s accepted responsibility and this is for conduct that dates back many years, and everybody should remember that.”

For Manafort to have reached a deal without cooperation, Whiting said it would mean that Mueller agreed to give something up.

“I can’t imagine that at this stage that Mueller would’ve given that much up,” Whiting said. “Because you know they’re on the eve of trial, and I’m sure he’s confident in his case. They’ve convicted him once.”

After being convicted of eight counts of financial crimes in Virginia last month, including bank and tax fraud, Manafort was set to face another trial in Washington for conspiracy, failure to register as a foreign agent, making false statement, money laundering and obstruction of justice.

Manafort faces a possible sentence of seven to 10 years from his conviction in Virginia. As for the charges in Washington, Jackson noted at Friday’s hearing that the sentencing guidelines run between 210 months and 262 months. Nevertheless a 10-year cap on both charges renders that guideline irrelevant.

The deal also requires Manafort to forfeit five properties, funds in three financial accounts and an insurance policy.

Jackson informed Manafort that if he is unhappy with his eventual sentence he cannot withdraw his plea.

“Has anyone … promised or suggested to you that merely because you’re pleading guilty I will give you a lighter sentence,” Jackson asked Manafort.

“No,” he responded, adding that no one has promised him a specific sentence.

Jackson said that as part of the deal Manafort has agreed to a delayed sentencing.

White-collar defense attorney Harry Sandick with Patterson Belknap noted that there’s no direct connection to President Trump in the superseding document – the connection is merely inferential.

“What does it say about Donald Trump that he hired someone like Manafort, who was involved in so much criminal activity,” Sandick mused.

Had the Washington case gone to trial this month, prosecutors were set to detail Manafort’s political consulting and lobbying work, done through 2014, on behalf of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the pro-Russian Party of Regions.

Prosecutors say that Manafort failed to register as a foreign agent while lobbying U.S. officials on behalf of his Ukrainian clients, as required by the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act. Manafort earned tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from his lobbying work, and prosecutors showed in the Virginia trial that he laundered that money through offshore accounts to avoid U.S. taxes.

Evidence that Manafort had tampered with witnesses led to a superseding indictment in June and Manafort’s incarceration.

The plea agreement itself was released publicly at around 2 p.m. It says Manafort will have to talk with Mueller’s team about “his participation in and knowledge of all criminal activities.”

He is also required to provide the government with documents relevant to the investigation, “and to participate in undercover activities pursuant to the specific instructions of law enforcement agents of the government.”

At the government’s request, Manafort will also have to testify in court proceedings and before grand juries when his testimony is deemed relevant.

Prosecutors plan to update Judge Jackson on Manafort’s cooperation on Nov. 16.

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