WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort will cooperate with the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, prosecutors said on Friday, a dramatic turnaround that deals the U.S. president a political setback.
After months of refusing to assist Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference and possible coordination between Trump campaign members and Moscow, Manafort finally took a plea deal and agreed to cooperate in return for reduced charges.
It was not immediately clear what information about Trump that Manafort, a longtime Republican political consultant who ran the campaign as it took off in mid-2016, could offer prosecutors.
But Friday’s announcement was a political blow to Trump’s presidency ahead of Nov. 6 congressional elections that will determine whether or not Republicans keep control of Congress.
Depending on what information Manafort offers, his cooperation could also bring Trump or his family and associates into clearer focus in an investigation that has cast a shadow over the presidency and which Trump derides as a “witch hunt.”
Manafort, 69, pleaded guilty in a federal court in Washington on Friday to counts of conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice, becoming the most prominent former Trump campaign official to admit to committing crimes. Manafort is the fifth person linked to Trump to plead guilty to criminal charges.
In a statement, the White House distanced Trump from the man who helped get him elected in November 2016 against the odds in a bitterly contested campaign in which he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. “It is totally unrelated.”
Manafort had other charges dropped but he still looks likely to go to prison, marking a steep fall from grace for a multi-millionaire who was often at Trump’s side as the Republican candidate took U.S. politics by storm in 2016.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller by providing interviews - in which he waived the right to having an attorney present - as well as texts and documents.
Manafort also agreed to testify before any grand juries and in any trials in Washington or elsewhere.
Despite his cooperation, Manafort could still face 10 years in prison on the two charges in Washington alone. In August, Manafort was convicted in Virginia on charges that pre-dated his stint on the Trump campaign and involved his work with pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. He is yet to be sentenced in that case.
Manafort had steadfastly refused to cooperate with Mueller even as the Virginia jury convicted him for hiding from U.S. tax authorities $16 million he earned as a political consultant in Ukraine to fund an opulent lifestyle and then lying to banks to secure $20 million in loans.
Trump last month praised Manafort for not entering into an agreement with prosecutors, as the president’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen had.
On Aug. 22, Trump wrote on Twitter: “Unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ - make up stories in order to get a ‘deal. Such respect for a brave man!”
Jury selection in Washington was due to begin on Monday in Manafort’s second trial on charges including conspiring to launder money, conspiring to defraud the United States, failing to register as a foreign agent and witness tampering.
Instead, Manafort entered the plea.
In court on Friday, Manafort stood stock still before the judge, answering her questions with single words in a low tone, or sat at the defense table. He sat straight or leaned his chin on his right hand throughout a lengthy recital of the charges to which he pleaded guilty.
Former federal prosecutor Harry Sandick said it was too soon to say how much Manafort’s cooperation could affect the investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russians.
“It’s hard to see how this is good for Trump,” Sandick added, “but we don’t know yet if it is bad for Trump.”
“The big question is what information does he have that the special counsel is interested in,” said Sandick. “Cooperation is supposed to be complete. So if he has information about the president or the president’s family and advisers that would have to be shared,” Sandick said.
Manafort made millions of dollars working in Ukraine before taking an unpaid position with Trump’s campaign for five months.
He led the campaign when Trump was selected as the Republican presidential nominee at the party convention.
Moscow rejects the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that it interfered in the American democratic process and Trump denies campaign collusion.
“He knows nothing harmful to the president and the plea is the best evidence of that,” Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is representing Trump in the Russia probe, told Reuters on Friday.
Manafort was present at a June, 2016, Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer at which his son expected to receive possibly damaging information about election opponent Clinton. Trump’s critics have pointed to the meeting as evidence of the collusion with Russia that Trump denies.
Trump has the power to issue a presidential pardon for Manafort on federal charges. The president has not said whether he would do so.
“Any attempt by the President to pardon Mr. Manafort or otherwise interfere in this investigation would be a gross abuse of power and require immediate action by Congress,” said Senator Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee.