U.S. President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and an associate, Rick Gates, have pleaded not guilty to conspiring to defraud the United States in over a decade of dealings with political forces in Ukraine.
Manafort and Gates appeared in federal court in Washington and pleaded not guilty to all charges against them after surrendering to authorities earlier on October 30.
A federal judge ordered house arrest for both men and set bond at $10 million for Manafort and $5 million for Gates.
They were indicted by a federal grand jury on 12 counts including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, making false statements, and several charges related to failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts.
Court documents unsealed on October 30 also showed that George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser for Trump's presidential campaign, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia.
The indictment is the first to stem from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion by associates of Trump.
Trump and his administration sought to defend themselves from fallout from the indictment and Papadopoulos's plea, asserting that the developments were not connected to the campaign and included no evidence of collusion.
"Today's announcement has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president's campaign or campaign activity," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told a news briefing.
She described Papadopoulos's role in the campaign as "extremely limited," saying he was in a "volunteer position" and "no activity was done in an official capacity."
Despite an indictment that included alleged activities taking place as recently as this year, Trump tweeted that "this is years ago, before Manafort was part of the Trump campaign."
In a separate tweet, he said: "Also, there is NO COLLUSION."
He asked why "the focus" was not on what he suggested was wrongdoing by his presidential election opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party.
The indictment against Manafort and Gates said that they "generated tens of millions of dollars in income" from work they did for Viktor Yanukovych, the Moscow-friendly politician who was president of Ukraine from 2010-14, the Ukrainian government, Yanukovych's Party of Regions, and the Opposition Bloc, a successor party formed after Yanukovych was driven from power by pro-European protests and fled to Russia.
The indictment alleges that "in order to hide Ukraine payments" from U.S. authorities, Manafort and Gates "laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts" from about 2006 through 2016 at the earliest. It said that they also hid their work and revenue as agents of Ukrainian political parties.
Court papers said that Papadopoulos, through his "false statements and omissions," had "impeded the FBI's ongoing investigation into the existence of any links or coordination between individuals associated with the campaign and the Russian government's efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election."
U.S. intelligence officials concluded in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an "influence campaign" targeting the 2016 election in the United States, aiming to undermine confidence in the U.S. democracy, tarnish the reputation of Trump's rival, Hillary Clinton, and help Trump.
Mueller, a former FBI director, was appointed as special counsel in May to lead the Justice Department's investigation, which is conducted in parallel with U.S. congressional probes.
Democrats in Congress called on the White House to allow the Mueller investigation to proceed without interference.
"The rule of law is paramount in America and the investigation must be allowed to proceed unimpeded. The president must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel’s work in any way," the Senate's Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, said.
The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein of California, said any move by Trump to fire Mueller would cause "a huge explosion" and "the country would not put up with it."
While Trump has condemned Mueller's investigation as a "witch-hunt" and protested the October 30 indictment, the White House said Trump did not plan to fire the special counsel.
The Judiciary Committee's chairman, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said he was pleased to see Mueller use the Manafort indictment to enforce a law that was laxly enforced in the past requiring agents of foreign governments to register with the Justice Department.
But another Republican committee member was critical of the indictment. Senator Orrin Hatch called it "an overreach," and said that "frankly, I'm having a rough time seeing why in the world they're indicting him."
Russia denies meddling in the election, despite substantial evidence. Trump, who won the election on November 8, denies there was any collusion between his associates and Moscow.
As part of his probe, Mueller has scrutinized Manafort’s role in the Trump campaign as well as his dealings in Ukraine.
Manafort stepped down as Trump's campaign chairman in August 2016, following reports about his lobbying work for Yanukovych's party and failure to register as a foreign agent. He has denied any wrongdoing.
FBI agents raided Manafort's home in July and prosecutors warned him at the time that they planned to indict him, prompting speculation that he might try to reach a deal with U.S. authorities to avoid prosecution.
Trump's lawyer, Ty Cobb, told The New York Times last week that there was no concern that Manafort might offer damaging information about the president in exchange for such a deal.
Manafort has handed over files to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees for their respective Russia investigations.
The files reportedly include notes he took during a meeting with Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, and a Russian lawyer in June 2016.
Reports said e-mails from Trump Jr. show that the meeting was set up to discuss potentially damaging information about Clinton.
With reporting by CNN, The New York Times, Reuters, AP, and AFP