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Manafort is said to near plea deal with prosecutors

WASHINGTON: Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman and one of Washington’s most prominent lobbyists, is close to a plea deal with federal prosecutors to avoid a trial scheduled for next week on charges stemming from work he did for pro-Russia political forces in Ukraine, people familiar with the case said Thursday.

Manafort has already been convicted on related bank and tax fraud charges arising from an investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. The negotiations over a plea deal relate to a separate set of seven charges encompassing conspiracy, obstruction of justice, money laundering, false statements and violations of a lobbying disclosure law.

It was not clear which charges Manafort might plead guilty to or whether he would cooperate with Mueller’s team in its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, possible collusion with the Trump campaign and obstruction of justice by Trump. The developments in plea negotiations were first reported by ABC News.

His trial on the second set of charges is scheduled to begin in US District Court in Washington on Monday. A pretrial hearing, postponed this week, is scheduled for Friday.

A jury in Northern Virginia convicted Manafort last month of eight counts of financial fraud based on much of the same evidence that prosecutors planned to present in the second trial.

He would also likely face a tougher jury pool in politically liberal Washington than he did in the first trial, held in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

Any plea by Manafort would be another unsettling development for a president who seems increasingly isolated and distrustful of members of his own circle. For months, Trump has praised Manafort for confronting Mueller instead of trying to negotiate a plea deal.

Four former Trump aides have pleaded guilty to charges related to the special counsel investigation: Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime personal lawyer; Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser; Rick Gates, the former deputy campaign chairman; and George Papadopoulos, a former campaign adviser.

A federal judge last Friday ordered Papadopoulos, the only one to be sentenced, to spend 14 days in prison for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russian government intermediaries. Trump mocked that outcome, suggesting that each day his former aide would spend in prison equalled $2 million in the special counsel’s budget, even though Mueller’s team has secured five other guilty pleas or convictions.

The president railed against plea deals in general after Cohen pleaded guilty last month to breaking campaign finance laws and other charges, implicating Trump in the cover-up of a potential sex scandal during the 2016 presidential race. Trump said that trading information on someone else for lesser charges or a lighter sentence “almost ought to be outlawed.”

Manafort, who has repeatedly insisted that he would not cooperate with the special counsel, has been reassessing his legal risks after last month’s trial. He was found guilty of eight counts of tax fraud, bank fraud and failure to report a foreign bank account, crimes that legal experts predicted were likely to result in a prison term of six to 12 years.

Prosecutors have approached the second trial much like the first: with a wealth of documentary evidence and a range of witnesses who worked with Manafort. In pretrial filings, they listed 2,127 potential exhibits.

The defence has planned to show that the special counsel had targeted Manafort because he had headed Trump’s presidential campaign. But Judge Amy Berman Jackson of US. District Court for the District of Columbia had already signalled that argument was out-of-bounds.

Trump has repeatedly come to Manafort’s defence. “Paul Manafort is a good man,” he said after the Virginia jury returned its verdict. “It doesn’t involve me but it’s a very sad thing.” In private discussions with his lawyers, Trump has raised the option of pardoning Manafort.

It was unclear whether that possibility has figured in Manafort’s thinking. If he pleads guilty, his lawyers could argue that he deserves a lighter sentence for accepting responsibility for his crimes.

By Thursday evening, the court hearing set for Friday was rescheduled for later in the morning, possibly to give the lawyers more time to complete an agreement.

Whether Manafort would cooperate has been an issue during his plea negotiations, according to one person familiar with the discussions. He worked for the Trump campaign for five months in 2016 and arguably had deeper contacts with pro-Russian oligarchs and intermediaries than any other campaign adviser did.

Prosecutors have previously said one of Manafort’s close associates in Ukraine had contacts with a Russian intelligence agency. A Russian oligarch closely tied to President Vladimir Putin of Russia also lent Manafort $10 million that prosecutors have suggested was never repaid.

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