Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, had struck a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller, according to a source familiar with the situation.
The agreement comes just days before Manafort is set to face foreign-lobbying and money-laundering charges in a Washington, D.C., court room. The pact has surprised some, given President Donald Trump’s effusive praise of Manafort’s willingness to fight Mueller in court.
Last month, Manfort was found guilty in a Virginia trial on eight counts of bank and tax fraud, while the judge declared a mistrial on 10 other charges after the jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict.
After the decision, Trump called Manafort “a brave man” on Twitter.
Manafort’s charges came out of Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin on its efforts. Trump has regularly decried the investigation as a “witch hunt.”
So what can people expect on Friday? We answer a few questions.
Do we know what’s in Manafort’s potential plea deal?
Not completely. And spokespeople for Manafort and for Mueller declined to comment on the deal.
But the two sides have reached an agreement. Prosecutors on Friday morning filed a new slimmed-down set of charges against Manafort, reining in the felony counts against him from seven to just two: conspiracy against the U.S. and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
And according to a source familiar with the discussions, Manafort’s deal with Mueller calls for a 10-year cap on how long he’ll be sent to jail, with the verdict from Virginia and now his Washington plea both resulting in concurrent sentences.
Why would Manafort plead guilty?
The outcome of the Virginia case could actually make a plea deal for Manafort more attractive, since he already faces substantial prison time — perhaps on the order of eight to 10 years — on his convictions there. That sentence could amount to life for a 69-year-old.
And prior to any plea deal, lawyers said, Manafort was exposed to another sentence of a decade or more if convicted on the Washington charges, which include conspiracy against the United States, failing to register as a foreign agent, money laundering and witness tampering. It would be up to the second judge who sentenced Manafort to decide whether the sentences would run concurrently or consecutively.
Also, a plea deal could seek to limit the fines Manafort would owe. Even a pardon from Trump wouldn't restore the legal fees Manafort has paid out.
“Manafort might be saying, 'Enough is enough. I spent $1 million, or $500,000 on legal fees and got eight convictions,'" said Fordham law professor Jed Shugerman. "This is someone who seems to have cared a lot about money, and he may now be trying to shield some amount of money for his family.”
If Manafort pleads guilty, does that mean he will help Mueller?
One key question is whether any agreement would require Manafort to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation and offer testimony to the special counsel, particularly on the core question of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Usually, plea deals require a defendant to share information useful to prosecutors, but prosecutors will typically give some concessions to someone who won't cooperate but is willing to plead guilty to some of the charges they face.
When Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner and co-defendant, agreed in February to plead guilty to two felony charges and cooperate with investigators, Manafort professed to be mystified by the development. Gates went on to serve as the star witness at Manafort’s trial.
“I continue to maintain my innocence,” Manafort wrote. “I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence. For reasons yet to surface, he chose to do otherwise. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me.”
Why would Mueller accept a plea deal if Manafort won’t cooperate?
Mueller’s team has shown a desire to put its findings on the public record even if it has little or no chance of getting the defendants in a courtroom. For instance, the special counsel’s team filed exhaustive indictments detailing Russia’s online disinformation and hacking schemes during the election, even though legal experts say the individuals named in the documents will never stand trial in the U.S.
Given that background, it might seem confusing why Mueller would allow Manafort to plead guilty if he’s not willing to offer useful information in the special counsel’s Russia probe.
But legal experts note that the government can benefit from avoiding the hassle of Manafort’s Washington trial, especially considering it already obtained guilty pleas in the Virginia case.
"Even if there's not a cooperation agreement, it's always to the government's benefit to negotiate a plea to avoid the time and resources necessary to do a trial and to get the certainty of a conviction. Every trial is to some extent a crapshoot," said former federal prosecutor Randall Eliason. "I expect they would consider letting him plead guilty to some counts in exchange for dropping some charges."
Still, won’t this anger Trump?
Actually, a plea deal that would scuttle Manafort's upcoming trial could be advantageous for Trump, lawyers close to the case say.
Trump could avoid a distracting, high-profile political spectacle just weeks before midterm elections in which GOP losses could severely crimp his power and might lead to his impeachment.
“It's a big win for Trump to get this trial off the calendar in late September or early October without cooperation," Jed Shugerman said. "Manafort might just be doing one last solid for Trump.”
So what would a plea deal mean for Manafort’s chance at a presidential pardon?
Not much, really. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani has even indicated he understands Manafort’s impulse to plead guilty.
"We can see a reason why he might want to do that. What’s the need for another trial?” he told POLITICO on Wednesday. “They’ve got enough to put him in jail. His lawyer is going to argue they shouldn’t. The judge should decide this. Not Mueller. I think it’s pretty clear if they were going to get anything from him, they’d have gotten it already.”
Giuliani added that, “From our perspective, we want him to do the right thing for himself.”
But after a plea deal, could Manafort be forced to testify against the president?
Even if Manafort doesn’t agree to cooperate, the former Trump campaign chairman might be put in a spot where he can more easily be compelled to testify about the Trump campaign's Russia contacts, including the now infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians that Manafort attended in June 2016.
Lawyers said it might expose the former Trump campaign chief to more questioning, but the same issue could come up even if Manafort is convicted at a second trial and Trump grants a pardon. Mueller could grant Manafort immunity and force him in front of a grand jury.
"A pardon would remove any Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination," said Phil Lacovara, who served on the Watergate Special Prosecution team. "Accordingly, Manafort could be ordered to testify about what he knows concerning the president‘s knowledge of any active cooperation between his presidential campaign and Russian agents. Any lies during that testimony would expose him to new prosecutions for perjury or making false statements."