AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has pleaded guilty to two felony charges. Manafort's plea agreement pledges that he will cooperate on any and all matters being investigated by the Justice Department's special counsel, Robert Mueller. Mueller is looking into Russia's attack on the 2016 election. Manafort's lawyer, Kevin Downing, made remarks outside the courthouse.
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KEVIN DOWNING: A tough day for Mr. Manafort, but he's accepted responsibility. He wanted to make sure that his family was able to remain safe and live a good life.
CORNISH: The deal comes just days before his trial in Washington, D.C., was scheduled to start. NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is in the studio. Hey there, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So for the longest time, Paul Manafort has been denying any wrongdoing, right? So what did he admit in the courthouse today?
JOHNSON: He admitted to two conspiracy charges. The first is conspiracy against the United States, which was kind of a catch-all that involved his lobbying for the pro-Russia government in Ukraine, money laundering and other allegations. The second charge is conspiracy to obstruct justice. That's based on Manafort's attempt to tamper with witnesses after he was already charged with other crimes this year. Authorities produced a lot of paperwork to back up those charges in an unusual and extensive 76-page court document setting out all their evidence. Manafort also agreed to forfeit a lot of property - his condo in Trump Tower in New York, his estate in the Hamptons, other real estate, bank accounts and insurance policy. The bottom line is the judge says Manafort faces a maximum of five years in prison on each of those counts. The Justice Department says it might send a letter to the court asking for leniency if Manafort is cooperative.
CORNISH: That seems like the heart of the matter here. What have you learned about the nature and extent of Paul Manafort's cooperation?
JOHNSON: The written plea deal obliges Paul Manafort to testify fully and completely in front of a grand jury, a trial or any old proceeding in D.C. The agreement says he'll cooperate on whatever the special counsel team says is relevant. Prosecutor Andrew Weissman in court today said Manafort's team has already shared some information with the government in sessions known as proffers. Now, Manafort said in the past through his lawyers he doesn't have any information on President Trump and coordination with Russia. It's not clear how helpful Paul Manafort is going to be. He's fought tooth and nail along the way. But the government has significant leverage over him. Prosecutors say they're not going to dismiss the many other charges against Manafort until he's done cooperating or until he's sentenced.
CORNISH: What have we heard from the White House so far?
JOHNSON: The press secretary, Sarah Sanders, says this had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious campaign in 2016. She says it's totally unrelated. Now, President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, says once again there's a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign. And the reason, Giuliani says, is that the president did nothing wrong. And the only people who really know what's next are in the Office of Special Counsel. They are not commenting. They're letting documents and the court hearing do the talking.
CORNISH: The idea of a presidential pardon keeps coming up when people talk about the Paul Manafort story. Could the president short-circuit this deal with a pardon?
JOHNSON: The president does have a lot of power under the Constitution to grant pardons, but his lawyers have been advising him to wait until this whole investigation is done. That's because authorities are looking at part at President Trump's actions, like firing the former FBI director Jim Comey, to find out if he obstructed justice. Giving a pardon to someone in the middle of an investigation might be another piece of evidence in that direction. It could cause a lot more legal problems for Donald Trump and political ones, too, with the midterm elections coming up in November.
CORNISH: So what happens now?
JOHNSON: So both sides in the Manafort case are going to send the judge a written update by November 16. But his cooperation may not be done by then. He may know a lot, and he's only just started talking. We're also waiting for former national security adviser Mike Flynn to be sentenced for lying to the FBI. And people close to Roger Stone, who's advised the president in the past, say they've been asked about him, Roger Stone, in the grand jury recently. And Roger Stone denies wrongdoing. He hasn't been charged with a crime. Stay tuned. It feels like there's a lot more to come here.
CORNISH: Before we let you go, was this considered a surprise?
JOHNSON: It was a surprise. The fact that Manafort was pleading was maybe not a surprise. He's out of money. Another trial after being convicted in Virginia seemed like a bit of overkill. His cooperation is a big open question and was a surprise.
CORNISH: That's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks for your reporting.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
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