WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort agreed Friday to cooperate in the special counsel investigation of possible electoral collusion with Russia, raising the stakes in a probe which increasingly threatens the White House.
In a plea deal to avert a second trial on money laundering and illegal lobbying charges, Manafort agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy against the United States and another count of obstruction of justice.
Manafort could eventually be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison as a part of the deal, and will forfeit four real estate properties worth millions of dollars, as well as bank accounts and a life insurance policy.
"I plead guilty," the 69-year-old veteran Republican political consultant told the court after being read the charges against him.
He listened to her with a long face as she listed all his assets and properties which will be seized, which include a luxurious home with a pool, tennis and basketball courts in Long Island's tony Hamptons district.
Manafort's decision to cooperate in the Russia investigation comes less than a month after another close Trump associate -- his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen -- cut a plea deal with federal prosecutors that implicated the president in campaign finance violations.
The Manafort deal comes as Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between Trump's 2016 election campaign and Russia increasingly pressures the White House.
It avoids a potentially explosive trial that could embarrass the president and his Republican Party during the seven weeks before hotly contested national elections.
A White House spokeswoman immediately sought to distance Trump from the plea deal, saying Manafort's admission of guilt 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.
- Charges tied to Ukraine work -
Manafort, who worked for the Trump campaign for nearly six months in the middle of 2016, was already convicted in a separate jury trial on eight counts related to financial fraud in August.
But those charges, as well as the two counts covered in Friday's plea deal, were unrelated to the campaign.
Instead, they derived from his work for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow political party between about 2005 and 2014.
Prosecutors say Manafort acted illegally as a lobbyist for Yanukovych and earned tens of millions of dollars which he laundered through Cyprus and other offshore banking locations and did not pay taxes on.
The indictment said he laundered more than $30 million into the United States to by properties and luxury goods and "cheated the United States out of over $15 million in taxes."
Possible Trump pardon?
There had been speculation that Manafort would not cooperate with Mueller in hopes of receiving an eventual pardon from Trump, who, according to multiple reports, had discussed the idea with his lawyers.
Manafort could have inside information on how much the campaign interacted with Russians during the election. US intelligence chiefs say Moscow interfered in the election extensively in an effort designed to help Trump defeat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Manafort was most notably 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 focus of the Mueller investigation.
Trump has repeatedly spoken out in Manafort's defense -- while also seeking to distance himself from his onetime associate, saying in June that he "came into the campaign very late and was with us for a short period of time."
"I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family," he tweeted in August, one day after a jury convicted Manafort on 10 counts related to bank and tax fraud, leaving him facing up to 80 years in prison.
Drawing a comparison with his former lawyer -- Trump had held up Manafort as an example of loyalty saying that "unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to 'break' - make up stories in order to get a 'deal.'"
"Such respect for a brave man!" Trump wrote at the time.
After that verdict, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani told The New York Times that he and the president had indeed 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.