WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Donald Trump s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort agreed Friday to cooperate in the Russia collusion investigation in a plea deal that left the White House looking increasingly under siege by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Manafort, who led Trump s election operation at the height of the campaign in the middle of 2016, admitted reduced charges of conspiracy just days before he was to go on trial for money laundering, illegal lobbying and witness tampering.
The surprise deal brought to seven the number of people who have pleaded guilty in cases tied to Mueller s 16 month old investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
It suggested that Mueller is getting ever closer to Trump, his family and top staff in an operation that many speculate could generate an impeachment motion against the president.
The White House though insisted Manafort s admission of guilt, in charges that mainly related to his work in Ukraine for the decade before the 2016 election, was wholly unconnected to the president.
“This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign. It is totally unrelated,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
The Manafort deal came three weeks after Trump s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen implicated the president directly as he pleaded guilty in New York to charges of campaign finance violations, related to buying the silence of women who allegedly had affairs with Trump.
“I plead guilty,” the 69 year old veteran Republican political consultant told the court after being read the charges against him.
He faces a prison term of up to 10 years, and will see millions of dollars worth of real estate and financial accounts seized by US authorities.
Manafort attorney Kevin Downing said his client had agreed to cooperate to “protect his family”.
“He has accepted responsibility for conduct that dates back many years,” Downing added.
Manafort s plea deal avoids a potentially explosive trial that could embarrass the president and his Republican Party during the seven weeks before hotly contested national elections on November 6.
But it also demonstrated the rapid progress Mueller is making in the sprawling investigation.
Last week George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the 2016 campaign whose contacts with Russians set off the original collusion investigation, was sentenced to 14 days in jail for lying to the FBI. His sentencing had been held up for nearly a year while he cooperated with investigators.
Former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn, who also pleaded guilty for lying, is still cooperating in the probe as he awaits sentencing.
Manafort was already convicted in a separate jury trial on eight counts related to financial fraud in August.
Those charges, as well as the two counts covered in Friday s plea deal, derived from his work for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow political party between about 2005 and 2014.
Prosecutors said Manafort acted illegally as a lobbyist for Yanukovych, laundered more than $30 million into the United States, and bilked the government of $15 million in taxes.
Yet Manafort could have inside information on the Trump campaign s suspect interactions with Russians from his nearly six months with the campaign in the middle of 2016.
US intelligence chiefs say Moscow interfered in the election extensively in order to help Trump defeat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Documents submitted in his first trial showed Manafort maintained his own Ukraine and Russia contacts during the campaign, including with a longtime Ukraine aide who US intelligence says has close ties to Moscow s powerful GRU spy agency.
In addition, Manafort was present at a meeting held by campaign executives, including Trump s son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner, with a Russian lawyer who had offered them “dirt” on Clinton.
That meeting is now a key focus of the Mueller investigation.
Trump has repeatedly spoken out in Manafort s defense — while also seeking to distance himself from his onetime associate.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” he tweeted in August, one day after Manafort s first conviction. “Unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to break – make up stories in order to get a deal. ”
After that verdict, Trump s lawyer Rudy Giuliani confirmed to The New York Times that he and the president had discussed the possibility of a pardon for Manafort, and the political fallout that could follow.
“He really thinks Manafort has been horribly treated,” Giuliani told the Times.