WASHINGTON -- Paul Manafort, the longtime U.S. lobbyist and former election campaign chairman for President Donald Trump, has pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and witness tampering, and prosecutors said he had agreed to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Manafort entered his plea in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on September 14, just days before his second federal trial was scheduled to begin.
Prosecutor Andrew Weismann told the court that the deal includes a "cooperation agreement," which could pose yet another major legal headache to Trump. It was not immediately clear either from Weismann's comments or court filings what that cooperation would entail.
"It’s tough day for Mr. Manafort but he's accepted responsibility. And he wanted to make sure that his family is able to remain safe, and live a good life. He’s accepted responsibility, and this is conduct that dates back many years. Everyone should remember that,” Manafort’s defense lawyer Kevin Downing told reporters outside the courthouse.
The plea, and cooperation, were an abrupt change for Manafort, who was convicted last month in the Virginia federal court on bank and tax fraud charges. Jury selection had been set to begin on September 17 in his second trial.
As with the Virginia case, the trial in Washington focused on criminal charges that largely predated Manafort’s time with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders issued a statement, reiterating that point.
"This had absolutely nothing to do with the President or his victorious 2016 Presidential campaign," she said, according to pool reports. "It is totally unrelated."
Manafort served for several months on the campaign, including as campaign chairman, until he was fired in August 2016 amid revelations of the scope of his consulting and lobbying work for Ukrainian politicians, including then-President Viktor Yanukovych.
The main focus of prosecutors in the second trial was the allegation that Manafort lobbied on behalf of Ukrainian politicians without registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The charge of witness tampering -- formally called obstruction of justice -- was added earlier this year after prosecutors alleged the Manafort and his longtime Ukrainian point man, Konstantin Kilimnik, had contacted potential witnesses after Manafort had been indicted in an effort to persuade them to change or coordinate their stories when discussing the case with prosecutors.
A guilty plea helps Manafort avoid the possibility of additional prison time in the event that the Washington jury were to have convicted him.
But the court papers filed September 14 also indicate that Manafort will forfeit his four homes to the federal government.
The Virginia case was the first brought by Mueller to go to trial and the guilty finding by the jury -- on eight of 18 charges -- was a significant victory for Mueller’s team.
In addition to being the first conviction won by Mueller, Manafort is the fifth person to plead guilty to charges stemming from Mueller’s investigation.
That includes Manafort’s former deputy, Rick Gates, who testified against Manafort in Virginia.
It also includes Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty last month to breaking campaign finance laws -- charges that were brought by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan -- after referral from Mueller.
Another 26 people and three businesses, in Russia, have been indicted, including 12 Russian military intelligence officers accused of involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computers in 2016.