The plea deal calls for a cap on prison time and dismisses deadlocked charges from an earlier trial pending cooperation with the Mueller probe.
President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller under a plea agreement revealed Friday.
Manafort appeared in a Washington, D.C., courtroom Friday morning, looking relaxed in a suit and red tie, to formally announce the deal.
The deal dismisses deadlocked charges against Manafort from an earlier bank- and tax-fraud trial in Virginia, but only after "successful cooperation” with Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference and whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow on its efforts. Later, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Manafort is agreeing to "cooperate fully and truthfully" with the investigation.
However, a source close to the defense told POLITICO, "the cooperation agreement does not involve the Trump campaign. ... There was no collusion with Russia."
Separately, the agreement calls for a 10-year cap on how long Manafort will be sent to prison, and for Manafort to serve time concurrently from his earlier Virginia trial and the D.C. case involving foreign-lobbying and money-laundering charges, according to a second source close to the case. But it will not release Manafort from jail, where he has been held since Mueller's team added witness tampering charges during the run-up to the longtime lobbyist's trial.
Manafort's sentencing will not occur until after the midterm elections. His first status hearing is set for Nov. 16, although the sentencing will likely happen at a later date.
Manafort addressed Jackson in a soft voice, saying, “I do,” and, “I understand,” as she asked him whether he understood what rights he’s giving up.
“Has anybody forced you, coerced you or threatened you in any way?” she asked later.
“No,” Manafort replied in a barely audible voice. A deputy marshal stood directly behind Manafort, a reminder that he remains in custody.
“Mr. Manafort has accepted responsibility,” Manafort lawyer Kevin Downing told reporters after the hearing. “He wanted to make sure his family was able to remain safe and live a good life. He’s accepted responsibility and this is for conduct that leads back many years, and everybody should remember that.”
Legal experts quickly spun the deal as a win for all the parties involved. Manafort gets a potentially shorter sentence and lessens his legal bills. Trump avoids several weeks of bad headlines ahead of the midterm elections about his corrupt former campaign aide. And Mueller — faced with Trump's constant claims that his probe is a "witch hunt" — gets to show yet again that his charges are not fabricated and can now divert resources to other elements of his Russia probe.
But the specter of Manafort's cooperation with Mueller throws into doubt how much of a win the deal could be for Trump. In addition to running Trump's campaign for several months, Manafort attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting where Trump aides thought they might get dirt on Hillary Clinton from a Kremlin-linked lawyer.
Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani insisted the president and his lawyers were not concerned about Manafort cutting a deal.
"Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign," he said in a statement Friday. "The reason: the President did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth." Five minutes later, Giuliani issued a "corrected statement," dropping the final line about Manafort telling the truth.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed Giuliani's remarks in her own statement.
"This had absolutely nothing to do with the President or his victorious 2016 Presidential campaign," she said. "It is totally unrelated.”
Prosecutors signaled the pending deal Friday morning, filing a new slimmed-down set of charges against Manafort, reining in the felony counts pending against him in D.C. from seven to just two: conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Jackson said in court that sentencing guidelines would call for Manafort to receive more than 17 years in the D.C. case, but that the two charges to which he was pleading guilty allow a maximum sentence of only 10 years. However, she cautioned the former Trump campaign chairman that it is possible any sentence she imposes might be consecutive to whatever sentence the Virginia-based judge directs, leaving open some chance that Manafort could get more than a decade in prison.
Still, Friday's move scuttles a high-profile second trial Manafort was expected to face in Washington on foreign-lobbying and money-laundering charges brought by Mueller — a spectacle that could have been an embarrassing distraction for Trump and the White House in the lead-up to the November midterm elections.
Last month, a jury in Alexandria, Virginia, convicted Manafort on eight felony charges in a tax- and bank-fraud case also prosecuted by Mueller’s team. The jury deadlocked on 10 other counts, but a verdict form said the jurors were split, 11-1, in favor of conviction on those charges.
Many Trump aides and advisers have said they believe the president is likely to grant Manafort a pardon on all the charges, which Trump has suggested amounted to prosecutorial overkill aimed at persuading Manafort to implicate Trump in wrongdoing in connection with the ongoing Russian investigation.
The charges filed Friday morning came in a criminal information document replacing the current indictment in the Washington-based case against Manafort.
The new charges mean that prosecutors have agreed to drop five counts, including money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent and making false statements. Manafort admitted to those allegations as part of the umbrella conspiracy-against-the-U.S. charge, but the individual charges and the potential prison time they carry are being dismissed.
Weissmann said Manafort is also admitting to all of the bank-fraud charges from the Virginia case. While that means Manafort won’t face another trial over those federal charges, the admission could be critical to the issue of follow-up state charges, since bank fraud can typically be charged at the state and federal level.
After Weissmann read off the new document in court Friday, Judge Jackson asked Manafort: “Is what the prosecutor just said a true and accurate description of what you did in this case?”
“I did. It is,” Manafort replied.
Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor from Virginia who has been tracking Manafort's case, called the plea "another huge victory and a seminal moment for the Mueller team."
"In sum, a big day for the investigation," he added. "A witch hunt? Far from it."
Inside the courtroom after the hearing ended, Downing and his fellow defense attorneys shook hands with several members of Mueller’s team, including Weissmann. Prosecutors on the special counsel team hugged each other.
Friday's filing also revealed intriguing details that showed Manafort's foreign lobbying campaign targeting former President Barack Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden.
According to the documents, a group of former European politicians Manafort convened as part of his lobbying effort met with Obama and Biden, “as well as senior United States officials in the executive and legislative branches,” in May 2013.
Alan Friedman, a former journalist based in Europe who proposed creating the group, dubbed the "Hapsburg Group, told Manafort that one member “delivered the message of not letting ‘Russians steal Ukraine from the West.’” The court document claimed that Manafort knew he had to disclose the meeting but failed to do so.
At the time, Manafort was working for Ukrainian Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian leader who was ultimately forced from office by public protest in early 2014.
The court documents indicate that Manafort “orchestrated a scheme to have …’[O]bama jews’ put pressure on the administration” to support Yanukovych. For instance, Manafort disseminated stories that “a senior Cabinet official” who previously criticized Yanukovych “was supporting anti-Semitism." Manafort then worked with a senior Israeli government official to provide a statement spreading the story, with the hope it would force the administration to “understand that ‘the Jewish community will take this out on Obama on election day if he does nothing.'”
The criminal information document did not name the Cabinet official, but Breitbart News published a story in October 2012 with the headline “Jewish Leaders Blame Hillary Clinton For 'Legitimizing' Ukraine's Neo-Nazi Party.”
The case Manafort is likely set to resolve through the plea deal was first brought by Mueller last October. Prosecutors alleged that the veteran political consultant “laundered” more than $30 million in income from work for political groups and individuals in Ukraine, including Yanukovych.
Last June, Mueller’s team added startling new charges to the case, alleging that Manafort conspired with a longtime associate they describe as linked to Russian intelligence — Konstantin Kilimnik — to tamper with witnesses. Prosecutors alleged that while the case was underway, Manafort and Kilimnik reached out to two men who did public relations work on the Ukraine project and encouraged them to falsely say the work was not aimed at U.S. audiences.
None of the charges filed in Virginia or Washington directly accused Manafort of any improper ties to Russia or of seeking to advance Russian interests during the roughly three months he spent as Trump campaign chairman in 2016. However, investigators have explored whether he was subject to Russian influence during that period.
Documents shown at Manafort’s Virginia trial indicated that in 2015 he was owed $1 million by a Ukrainian oligarch for political work. In addition, prosecutors revealed that Manafort was loaned at least $10 million by a Russian oligarch during a business relationship that eventually soured. Congressional investigators reportedly obtained emails showing that during the 2016 campaign Manafort offered to arrange “private briefings” for the Russian businessman, Oleg Deripaska.
Jury selection for Manafort’s D.C. trial was set to begin Monday, with opening arguments scheduled for a week later. Judge Jackson, an Obama appointee, was set to oversee the case.
One key question had been whether a plea agreement head of the trial would require Manafort to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation and offer testimony to the special counsel, particularly on the core question of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Trump has railed against “flippers” and publicly praised Manafort for refusing to “break” under pressure from the special counsel, making any perception that Manafort is cooperating with the Russia inquiry a possible deal-breaker for a pardon.
On Friday, Downing, Manafort's attorney, told POLITICO that his client has already begun cooperating with Mueller.
Mirroring the judge's remarks, Downing said that Manafort had “agreed to fully cooperate” with Mueller and added that the document approved in court Friday spells out how the arrangement will work.
That document has not yet been made public, but a spokesman for Mueller said prosecutors agreed that Manafort was entitled to the maximum credit for acceptance of responsibility under federal sentencing guidelines. The deal also says prosecutors may ask that any sentence imposed on Manafort be reduced later if he is deemed to have given “substantial assistance” to Mueller’s probe.
Downing declined to say whether the arrangement would require that Manafort provide details about his interactions with Trump, or whether he would continue sharing information with Trump's lawyers under a joint defense arrangement.
Manafort does stand to lose sizable investments under the agreement. The pact calls for Manafort to forfeit tens of millions of dollars in property and bank accounts, including his Trump Tower apartment, an apartment on Baxter Street in New York's Chinatown, a townhouse on Union Street in Brooklyn and his large estate in Bridgehampton, N.Y.
Some of the property Manafort will surrender substitutes for other assets. Giving up the Chinatown apartment will prevent seizure of a home in Arlington, while the Trump Tower apartment was essentially traded for Charles Schwab brokerage account prosecutors froze. It appears Manafort will be permitted to keep his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and his condo in Alexandria.
Going forward, the sentences for Manafort could be all but academic if Trump grants a pardon.
Indeed, Manafort might never be sentenced at all. Last year, Trump granted a pardon to Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who is a loyal political supporter and who was awaiting sentencing on a contempt-of-court charge.
That act of clemency stirred political controversy, but it could be mild compared to the furor a pardon for Manafort might set off since many will view it as an act aimed at thwarting Mueller’s investigation.
Manafort’s Virginia trial was deeply irritating to Trump, who grumbled about all the media attention it received, according to aides and advisers. The Washington trial could have proven even more galling for him, and not only because of its proximity to the election.
While much mention of the Trump campaign hadn’t been expected, the D.C. trial was likely to focus on the foreign control of lobbying that Manafort did for Ukraine, Yanukovych and his political allies. The foreign-influence aspect of the case could have led to a more sinister tone in news coverage compared with the Virginia case, which was primarily about Manafort's failure to pay income taxes and allegations that he lied to banks when submitting loan applications.
Not only can Manafort "reduce his sentence and legal bills," said Barbara McQuade, a former attorney and law professor at the University of Michigan who watched Manafort's first trial in the courtroom, "he can also help President Trump by avoiding damaging daily headlines for the next several weeks in the run up to the midterm elections."
As the crowds dispersed after Friday's hearing, it signaled something of a public end to one of the more visible legal battles of the long-running Mueller probe. Downing, Manafort's attorney, walked away from the courthouse followed by a diminishing number of media and a man who frequents Mueller proceedings holding a sign publicizing his company that offers tours of African American historical sites in Washington.
Trailing behind, one of Downing's colleagues acknowledged it was not clear where exactly his partner was going.