Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort will co-operate with the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, a dramatic turnaround in a probe that the US president derides as a political witch hunt.
After months of refusing to assist Special Counsel Robert Mueller's inquiry into Russian interference and possible co-ordination between Trump campaign members and Moscow, Manafort finally took a plea deal on Friday and agreed to co-operate in return for reduced charges. Mr Trump had previously praised Manafort in an August 22 Twitter post as "a brave man" for his refusal to co-operate with the inquiry.
It is unclear what information Manafort, a longtime Republican political consultant who ran the campaign as it took off in mid-2016, could offer prosecutors but his co-operation might bring Mr Trump, his family and associates under closer scrutiny.
The White House distanced Mr Trump from the man who helped get him elected against the odds in a bitter contest with Democratic rival 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."
Cornell University professor of law Jens David Ohlin said it was hard to predict what information a co-operation agreement would yield but that Manafort's deal could be a serious problem for Mr Trump.
"If Manafort is willing to give Mueller information about Trump's contacts with Russia, whether the contacts were direct or indirect, then this really is a disaster for Trump and his associates."
Manafort is the fifth person linked to Mr Trump to plead guilty to criminal charges. The others are his former longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen; former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos; Mr Trump's first national security adviser Michael Flynn; and Manafort's business protege Rick Gates, who also worked on the 2016 campaign.
Manafort, 69, pleaded guilty in a federal court in Washington on Friday to conspiracy against the United States - a charge that includes a range of conduct from money laundering to unregistered lobbying - and conspiracy to obstruct justice for his attempts to tamper with witnesses in his case. The prosecution dropped five other counts.
The plea, coming on the heels of a conviction in a separate case last month, concludes a steep fall from grace for a multi-millionaire who was often at Mr Trump's side as he took US politics by storm in 2016. The investigation has cast a shadow over the president as the leader of the Republican Party going into the November 6 congressional elections that will determine whether or not Republicans keep control of Congress.
Mr Mueller’s team told the court that Manafort had previewed what information he could offer, leading to the deal. The plea agreement requires him to co-operate completely with the government, including giving interviews without his attorney present and testifying before any grand juries or at any trials.
Manafort is facing up to 10 years in prison on the two charges in Washington alone, and another eight to 10 years on a conviction in Virginia in August on tax and bank fraud charges.
But depending on the extent of his co-operation and the degree to which prosecutors argue for reducing his sentence, Manafort could end up getting anywhere from a year to five years in prison, according to Mark Allenbaugh, a federal sentencing expert. “It would not surprise me if he got time served for both cases,” Mr Allenbaugh said.
Manafort was convicted last month in Virginia on charges that pre-dated his stint on the Trump campaign and involved his work with pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. The jury found that he hid from US tax authorities $16 million (Dh58.8m) he earned as a political consultant in Ukraine to fund an opulent lifestyle and lied to banks to secure $20m in loans.
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 defence table. He sat straight or leaned his chin on his right hand throughout a lengthy recital of the charges to which he pleaded guilty.
Manafort made millions of dollars working in Ukraine before taking an unpaid position with Mr Trump's campaign for five months.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is representing Mr Trump in the Russia probe, said Manafort cooperating with Mr Mueller was not a problem for his client.
"He knows nothing harmful to the president and the plea is the best evidence of that," Mr Giuliani told Reuters.
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 Ms Clinton. Mr Trump's critics have pointed to the meeting as evidence of the collusion with Russia that the president denies.
Later in 2016, Manafort oversaw the Republican National Convention that nominated Mr Trump for the presidency. During the convention, the party’s platform on Ukraine was altered in a way that made it more in line with Russian interests.
Mr Trump has the power to issue a presidential pardon for Manafort on federal charges. The president has not said whether he would do so.
Senator Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said any attempt by Mr Trump to pardon Manafort "would be a gross abuse of power and require immediate action by Congress".
Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann walked the court through Manafort’s efforts over a decade to influence power brokers in Washington without acknowledging that he was being paid tens of millions of dollars from pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, a disclosure required by law.
“Mr Manafort engaged in a variety of criminal schemes. He did so knowingly, intentionally and willfully,” Mr Weissmann said.
The plea agreement requires Manafort to forfeit millions of dollars worth of real estate, including a mansion in the Hamptons, a Brooklyn brownstone and an apartment in Trump Tower in Manhattan.
“He’s accepted responsibility," Manafort's lawyer Kevin Downing said outside the courthouse. "He wanted to make sure that his family was able to remain safe and live a good life."