By Nathan Layne and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort will cooperate with the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, a dramatic turnaround that deals the U.S. president a setback.
After months of refusing to assist Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference and possible coordination between Trump campaign members and Moscow, Manafort finally took a plea deal on Friday and agreed to cooperate in return for reduced charges.
It is unclear what information Manafort, a longtime Republican political consultant who ran the campaign as it took off in mid-2016, could offer prosecutors but his cooperation might bring Trump, his family and associates under closer scrutiny.
Friday’s announcement was a political blow to Trump’s presidency ahead of Nov. 6 congressional elections that will determine whether or not Republicans keep control of Congress.
Manafort, 69, pleaded guilty in a federal court in Washington on Friday to counts of conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice, becoming the most prominent former Trump campaign official to admit to committing crimes. Manafort is the fifth person linked to Trump to plead guilty to criminal charges.
The White House distanced Trump from the man who helped get him elected in November 2016 against the odds in a bitterly contested campaign in which he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “It is totally unrelated.”
Trump has derided the investigation as a “witch hunt.”
Manafort had other charges dropped but he could still go to prison, marking a steep fall from grace for a multi-millionaire who was often at Trump’s side as the Republican candidate took U.S. politics by storm in 2016.
Mueller’s team told the court that Manafort had previewed what information he could offer, leading to the deal. The plea agreement requires him to cooperate completely with the government, which includes giving interviews without his attorney present and testifying before any grand juries or at any trials.
Manafort is facing up to 10 years in prison on the two charges in Washington alone, and another eight to ten years on a conviction in Virginia in August on tax and bank fraud charges.
But depending on the extent of his cooperation and the degree to which prosecutors argue for reducing his sentence, Manafort could end up getting anywhere from a year to five years in prison, according to Mark Allenbaugh. “It would not surprise me if he got time served for both cases,” Allenbaugh said.
Manafort was convicted in Virginia on charges that pre-dated his stint on the Trump campaign and involved his work with pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.
He had steadfastly refused to cooperate with Mueller even as the Virginia jury convicted him for hiding from U.S. tax authorities $16 million he earned as a political consultant in Ukraine to fund an opulent lifestyle and then lying to banks to secure $20 million in loans.
Trump last month praised Manafort as “a brave man” for not entering into an agreement with prosecutors while blasting the president’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen for doing so.
In court on Friday, Manafort stood stock still before the judge, answering her questions with single words in a low tone, or sat at the defense table. He sat straight or leaned his chin on his right hand throughout a lengthy recital of the charges to which he pleaded guilty.
Cornell University professor of law Jens David Ohlin said it was hard to predict what information a cooperation agreement will yield but that Manafort’s plea deal could be a serious problem for Trump.
“If Manafort is willing to give Mueller information about Trump’s contacts with Russia, whether the contacts were direct or indirect, then this really is a disaster for Trump and his associates.”
Manafort made millions of dollars working in Ukraine before taking an unpaid position with Trump’s campaign for five months.
He led the campaign when Trump was selected as the Republican presidential nominee at the party convention.
Moscow rejects the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that it interfered in the American democratic process and Trump denies campaign collusion.
“He knows nothing harmful to the president and the plea is the best evidence of that,” Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is representing Trump in the Russia probe, told Reuters.
Manafort was present at a June, 2016, Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer at which his son expected to receive possibly damaging information about election opponent Clinton. Trump’s critics have pointed to the meeting as evidence of the collusion with Russia that Trump denies.
Later in 2016, Manafort oversaw the Republican National Convention that nominated Trump for the presidency. During the convention, the party’s platform on Ukraine was altered in a way that made it more in line with Russian interests.
Trump has the power to issue a presidential pardon for Manafort on federal charges. The president has not said whether he would do so.
Senator Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said any attempt by Trump to pardon Manafort “would be a gross abuse of power and require immediate action by Congress.”
Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann walked the court through Manafort’s efforts over a decade to influence power brokers in Washington without acknowledging that he was being paid tens of millions of dollars from pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, a disclosure required by law.
“Mr. Manafort engaged in a variety of criminal schemes. He did so knowingly, intentionally and willfully,” Weissmann said.
Manafort’s lawyer Kevin Downing said outside the courthouse:
“He’s accepted responsibility and this is for conduct that dates back many years and everybody should remember that.”
(Reporting by Nathan Layne and Jonathan Landay; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld and Susan Heavey; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)