After more than four decades of lobbying on behalf of Republican politicians, foreign dictators, and oligarchs, Paul Manafort is flipping on his last client: President Trump.
The president’s former campaign chairman has agreed to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the investigation of a potential conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow, prosecutors said in court on Friday. Manafort has also pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, avoiding the spectacle of a second trial in Washington, D.C.
Legal experts characterized Manafort’s move as a significant win for Mueller—and a big setback for Trump. “Manafort’s cooperation is a tremendous achievement for the Mueller investigation—maybe the single biggest development yet,” said Seth Waxman, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. “Manafort provides Mueller with an insider to the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and likely many other key moments.”
Indeed, Manafort, who ran the Trump campaign for nearly five months in 2016, could be extremely valuable to prosecutors. The government has been eyeing the meeting Waxman referenced, which Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner attended in June 2016 with Russian nationals offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. “This is also incredibly important because if the president were to pardon Manafort under these circumstances, the case against the president for obstruction of justice would be even more compelling,” Waxman continued. “In short, this is a huge day for the government.”
Speculation abounded this week that Manafort was inching toward a plea agreement, but whether he would agree to cooperate with the government remained in doubt. Once Mueller’s team posted its criminal information against Manafort on Friday, however, it seemed clear that Manafort was flipping: Prosecutors gave him a pretty good deal, dropping five of the seven charges he would have faced in the D.C. trial, including money laundering and acting as an unregistered foreign agent. Manafort did not contest those accusations as part of his plea agreement, but he won’t be charged with them. The government also dropped the 10 charges that jurors could not reach a verdict on during his earlier trial in Alexandria, Virginia. As part of his plea deal, however, Manafort will be required to forfeit $46 million in cash and properties to the U.S. government.
Unlike the Virginia trial—a standard white-collar crime case that centered around how Manafort hid, and later distorted, his cash flow—the D.C. proceedings would have focused on issues related more closely to the Russia inquiry, namely, Manafort’s connections to Russian and pro-Russian entities in Ukraine and his alleged lobbying on their behalf in the United States. Manafort’s plea agreement means that those connections won’t be exposed and dissected in court. But it will save both sides the time and cost of a trial.
There could be another advantage for Mueller, too: “The investigation now gains even more legitimacy in the eyes of the public because, in pleading guilty, Manafort is essentially announcing that Mueller’s investigation is spot-on regarding the crimes he committed,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. “So this continues to chip away at the witch-hunt argument.”
Trump has repeatedly used that phrase to describe the Russia probe, arguing that it has not yet uncovered direct evidence that his campaign conspired with Russia to win the 2016 election. Five of his former aides, however, have now pleaded guilty to crimes uncovered by Mueller’s investigation, which has produced 187 criminal charges in just over a year. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen, his former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, his former Deputy Campaign Chairman Rick Gates, and former campaign foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos have all pleaded guilty to either tax and bank-fraud charges or lying to the FBI.
Whether Manafort will be pardoned is the next big question in this saga—or at least it was before Manafort’s cooperation was revealed. Earlier this week, former federal prosecutors told me that Manafort’s joint-defense agreement with Trump could help him angle for a pardon. The agreement has given him a valuable channel into Trumpworld, allowing him to share confidential information with Trump—and vice versa—about the Russia investigation under the protection of attorney-client privilege. But that agreement will undoubtedly be voided now that Manafort has chosen to help Mueller.
Trump had praised Manafort for resisting the government’s overtures, tweeting last month that he feels “very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family” and that he has “such respect for a brave man” who “refused to ‘break’ – make up stories in order to get a deal.” Now, however, he’ll likely view Manafort through the same lens as he does Cohen, whom Trump called a “rat” after he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the Southern District of New York earlier this summer.
The criminal information filed against Manafort on Friday makes a pardon even more unpalatable and unjustified, experts told me, as it lays out Manafort’s crimes in extraordinary detail. Trump’s lawyers, however, are downplaying its significance: “Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign,” Rudy Giuliani said in a statement. “The reason: the President did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth.”