Paul Manafort has decided to plead guilty to charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and avoid a second criminal trial, but it’s unclear whether he will cooperate with Mueller’s inquiry into Russian election interference.
Manafort agreed to plead to conspiracy against the US and conspiracy to obstruct justice by tampering with witnesses. He also agreed to forfeit some properties.
His decision to plead guilty, indicated in a court filing on Friday, came just days before jury selection was set to begin Sept. 17 in Washington, where Mueller accused him of conspiring to launder money, acting as an unregistered foreign agent of Ukraine and obstructing justice. Manafort, 69, was convicted last month of bank and tax fraud after a trial in Alexandria, Virginia.
Mueller, who is primarily examining Russian election interference, has secured guilty pleas and cooperation from several people, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Trump’s former fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted financial crimes and is helping federal prosecutors in New York.
In pleading guilty, Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, would admit he broke the law -- a concession he refused to make throughout his Alexandria trial and since he was charged nearly a year ago in Washington. Manafort faces up to a decade in prison after the Virginia jury verdict, and a conviction in Washington could have increased his prison time. He could also get a pardon from Trump, which would set off a political firestorm.
If Manafort had gone through with the second trial, he would have faced much of the same evidence that led to his conviction in Alexandria, including how he earned millions of dollars as a consultant to former President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine and his pro-Russia Party of Regions and was paid by wealthy Ukrainian businessmen through Cyprus accounts. Prosecutors said he used that untaxed income to support a lavish lifestyle.
In the Washington case, prosecutors accused him of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act by not telling the Justice Department about a multimillion-dollar campaign to improve the image of Yanukovych and his Party of Regions in Europe and the U.S. Jurors would have heard about how he hired prominent U.S. firms like the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs LLC to help him, along with several European former elected officials.
One of the potential witnesses against Manafort was Sam Patten, who pleaded guilty on Aug. 31 to failing to register as a Ukrainian agent. He also admitted that he helped a pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch gain access to Trump’s inauguration.
Manafort’s guilty plea would come with a detailed admission of wrongdoing, which could shed light on his interactions with oligarchs from Ukraine and Russia. In an April court filing, Mueller’s prosecutors defended their pursuit of Manafort, even though he wasn’t charged with crimes related to Russian election interference. Prosecutors said they had to examine whether Russia-backed politicians and oligarchs served as a back channel to Russia in the campaign.
The investigation looked at such interactions “before and during the campaign to plumb motives and opportunities to coordinate and to expose possible channels for surreptitious communications,” prosecutors wrote. “And prosecutors would naturally follow the money trail from Manafort’s Ukrainian consulting activities.”
Manafort attended the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in which Kremlin-backed attendees promised to offer damaging information about Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also attended the meeting.
By entering a guilty plea, Manafort could also avoid millions of dollars in potential legal fees.