WASHINGTON – Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort agreed Friday to cooperate with the special counsel's Russia investigation as he pleaded guilty to federal charges and avoided a second trial that could have exposed him to even greater punishment.
The deal gives special counsel Robert Mueller a key cooperator who led the Trump election effort for a crucial stretch during the 2016 presidential campaign, though the White House quickly said the outcome had nothing to do with that. The result also ensures that the investigation will extend far beyond the November congressional elections despite entreaties from the president's lawyer that Mueller bring his probe to a close.
Manafort's plea, to charges tied to his Ukrainian political consulting work and unrelated to his time with the campaign, came just three days before he was to have stood trial for a second time.
Manafort, 69, entered the courtroom with a broad smile, wearing a dark suit and red tie, and mouthed a kiss to his wife. When it came time to face the judge, he responded to her questions in a low voice with brief answers.
He was convicted last month of eight financial crimes in a separate trial in Virginia and faces seven to 10 years in prison in that case. The two conspiracy counts he pleaded guilty to on Friday carry up to five years in prison, though Manafort's sentence will ultimately depend on his cooperation.
On Friday, prosecutor Andrew Weissman said in court that Manafort had struck a "cooperation agreement" and would plead guilty to charges related to his Ukrainian political consulting work.
"He wanted to make sure that his family was able to remain safe and live a good life. He's accepted responsibility. This is for conduct that dates back many years and everybody should remember that," said attorney Kevin Downing.
It is unclear what information Manafort is prepared to provide to investigators about Trump or that could aid Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
But he could be a key witness for the government. He participated in a 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians where he expected to receive derogatory information about Democrat Hillary Clinton. A grand jury used by Mueller has heard testimony about the meeting.
He was also a close business associate of a man who U.S. intelligence believes has ties to Russian intelligence.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the Manafort case was unrelated to President Donald Trump.
"This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign. It is totally unrelated."
Rudy Giuliani, Trump's attorney, echoed that.
"Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign," Giuliani said.
Under the terms of Friday's plea deal, prosecutors dropped the bulk of the charges against Manafort, filing new paperwork that includes just two counts that resemble in many ways the original allegations made in an indictment last year.
The charges include conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
It's unclear how the possible deal might affect Manafort's pursuit of a pardon from Trump. The president has signaled that he's sympathetic to Manafort's cause. In comments to Politico before Friday's plea deal, Giuliani said a plea without a cooperation agreement wouldn't foreclose the possibility of a pardon.
Manafort had aggressively fought the charges against him and taken shots at his co-defendant, Rick Gates, who cut a deal with prosecutors earlier this year that included a cooperation agreement.
At the time of Gates' plea, Manafort issued a statement saying he "had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence." And during his Virginia trial in August, Manafort's lawyers spent considerable time painting Gates as a liar, embezzler, philanderer and turncoat who would say anything to get a lighter prison sentence.
Pleading guilty allows Manafort to avoid a trial that was expected to last at least three weeks and posed the potential of adding years to the time he is already facing under federal sentencing guidelines from his conviction in Virginia.
A jury in that earlier trial found Manafort guilty of eight counts of tax evasion, failing to report foreign bank accounts and bank fraud. Jurors deadlocked on 10 other counts.
In the current Washington case, prosecutors were expected to lay out in detail Manafort's political consulting and lobbying work on behalf of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the pro-Russian Party of Regions.
Prosecutors say that Manafort directed a large scale lobbying operation in the U.S. for Ukrainian interests without registering with the Justice Department as required by the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. Manafort was accused of concealing from the IRS tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from his Ukrainian patrons and conspiring to launder that money through offshore accounts in Cyprus and elsewhere.
Manafort had denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty. Even after his indictment last October, though, prosecutors say he continued to commit crimes by tampering with witnesses. The discovery of his witness contacts led to a superseding indictment in June and Manafort's jailing ahead of his trial.
In addition to the witness tampering counts, Manafort had been formally charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent, conspiring to launder money and lying to the FBI and Justice Department about the nature of his work. Court papers indicated that he could have faced between 15 and 19 1/2 years in prison under federal guidelines.