Paul Manafort is expected to plead guilty Friday to criminal charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller related to his work for a Russia-aligned political party in the Ukraine.
Mueller has scheduled a plea hearing for 11 a.m. EST Friday after filing a new superseding criminal indictment against Manafort that reduced the charges against President Trump’s ex-campaign chairman from a total of seven counts to just two: conspiracy against the U.S., and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The announcement follows reporting from multiple outlets Thursday evening that Manafort was close to reaching an agreement to plead guilty with prosecutors, the last weekday before jury selection was to begin for his second trial. A spokesman for Manafort didn’t immediately return requests for comment from VICE News.
Observers, however, have cautioned that a guilty plea isn’t the same thing as an agreement to cooperate.
Before Friday’s plea hearing was announced, legal observers said that pleading guilty might simply mean that Manafort wanted to avoid the stress and expense of the second trial, without having to divulge information to Mueller’s investigators about the inner workings of the Trump 2016 campaign in exchange for leniency.
Manafort may be refusing to cooperate with Mueller in hopes of an eventual pardon from Trump, observers have speculated.
Manafort was already found guilty on eight counts in a federal tax and bank fraud case against him in Alexandria, Virginia, in August.
That trial focused on Manafort’s financial affairs, and how he handled the tens of millions he earned while working as a political adviser for the former president of Ukraine. Prosecutors had said he’d funneled over $60 million through a web of offshore companies, and failed to pay taxes on over $15 million.
The charges against Manafort in Washington covered some related financial ground but also took aim at the nature of the work Manafort did for Ukraine to earn those millions.
In Washington, Manafort had been accused of failing to register as an agent of a foreign government, making false statements, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to launder money.
In an interview published in Politico Thursday, President Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani told Politico that he’s been in contact with Manafort’s legal team, and sees no danger to Trump from any guilty plea by Manafort in the second trial.
“It’s pretty clear if they were going to get anything from him they’d have gotten it already,” Giuliani said.
Manafort, 69, already faces a likely sentence of 8-10 years following his conviction in the Virginia case, legal experts estimate based on sentencing guideline rules.
Manafort’s senior position in the campaign and long ties to influential power-players from Ukraine and Russia make him uniquely positioned to help Mueller’s investigators understand what really went down between the Trump campaign and Moscow during the 2016 campaign.
Trump has previously praised Manafort as a “brave man” for refusing to back down despite the charges against him, and railed against “flippers” who share dirt with investigators about their bosses under legal pressure. He’s even suggested offhandedly that flipping ought to be illegal.
But a guilty plea by Manafort to this second round of charges could have a political benefits for the White House, by avoiding a second embarrassing trial that examines questions related to Ukrainian and Russian political influence in Washington.
In the Politico interview, Giuliani said Manafort should go ahead and plead guilty if he believes it’s the best move for him, and that the White House isn’t worried that a guilty plea might mean Manafort might end up sharing damaging information about the campaign.
“From our perspective, we want him to do the right thing for himself,” said the former New York mayor, who’s emerged as the public voice of the president’s legal team. “There’s no fear that Paul Manafort would cooperate against the president because there’s nothing to cooperate about and we long ago evaluated him as an honorable man.”
Here's the new indictment:
Cover image: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as his campaign manager Paul Manafort looks on during Trump's walk through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, U.S., July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo