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What will Paul Manafort’s cooperation mean for the Russia probe?

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has agreed to a plea deal and to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Manafort is the fourth former Trump campaign aide to admit to federal crimes as part of the Russia probe. William Brangham was in the courtroom and joins Judy Woodruff for an update.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to today's guilty plea by Paul Manafort.

    It marks the fourth former Trump presidential campaign to admit to federal crimes as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

    As part of the deal, the former Trump campaign chairman agrees to cooperate with the Mueller probe.

    William Brangham was again in the courtroom today, and he joins me now.

    So, bring us up to speed, William. What happened?

  • William Brangham:

    This was really a stunning development.

    The reporting all along had indicated that Paul Manafort would show up today and plead guilty to the crimes that he was facing here. And these were substantial crimes. It was money laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent, tax and bank fraud, things like that.

    But then, when the revelation came, and Judge Amy Jackson today went through all of these charges with Manafort, she said, did you commit all of these crimes? He said, "I do, I do, I do."

    And at the very end, she said, "And you now agree to cooperate with the office of special counsel?" Paul Manafort very quietly said, "I do."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so what do we know? What does this mean for the Mueller investigation?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, Paul Manafort now has to cooperate fully and completely with Mueller's team. He has to answer whatever questions they want, turn over documents. There's nothing that seems to be off-limits in their questioning.

    What Paul Manafort can tell Robert Mueller is still the $64,000 question. We just don't know. I mean, if you think about what Mueller's mandate is, what did Russia do vis-a-vis our elections and what role did the Trump campaign, if any, play in that?

    Paul Manafort was a central character in the Trump campaign. He was at this infamous Trump Tower meeting. But, again, we just don't know what he has to offer.

    That said, this certainly has to make the president quite nervous. I mean, the president all along has been very complimentary to Paul Manafort, saying how glad he was that he didn't break under pressure, comparing him to Michael Cohen.

    So now that the reverse has happened today, it's got to be unsettling for the White House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's right. The president went out of his way to compliment.

    And so, William, do we know what led to this? I mean, all along, Paul Manafort, his lawyers were saying he would never cooperate, would never agree to plead guilty.

  • William Brangham:

    I asked Paul Manafort's longtime personal lawyer that question today. And he said, his sense was that Paul Manafort simply recognized that he was really in a tough spot.

    As you remember, he was convicted on eight counts in Virginia earlier this summer. He was facing many years in prison for that. That trial itself was incredibly costly to him. He has no income. He's now been stripped of his houses, his bank accounts, his life insurance policy.

    And he was facing this very substantial upcoming trial that was supposed to start on Monday. So, I think — I think Manafort made the calculation and hoped now that, if he cooperates with Mueller, he might get some leniency on those other charges.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do, though, have this argument coming from the other side, the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, pointing out that these — this plea, this acknowledgement by Paul Manafort is all about things that had nothing, they say, to do with President Trump.

    It's money laundering. It's tax issues. So, that's their argument, looking at this.

  • William Brangham:

    And, on one level, that is factually true. Most of these charges had to do with things that happened well before the Trump campaign and Manafort's involvement.

    That said, the elephant in the room is that he is now cooperating, and he is telling Mueller about things directly related to the Trump campaign. So, that's where the crucial part is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, there's been — as we know, in connection with all this, there was talking — and it was even before the president was complimenting him — that the president might be — might consider pardoning Paul Manafort.

    What does that look like right now?

  • William Brangham:

    I think the calculus has to change now for the White House, because now that Manafort is, we know, talking to Robert Mueller's office, if the president were to pardon him, I just think it increases the chances that this looks like the president is offering a pardon to keep him quiet, and to stop him doing that.

    So it just becomes much more fraught politically for the president to do so. Also, the prosecutors today — I don't know if this was trying to preempt that, but they were making clear that there are other state charges for which the president cannot pardon anyone for that hang over Paul Manafort and that those could possibly be exerted someday.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we still don't know about jail, prison time for him.

  • William Brangham:

    We don't yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, William Brangham, important story. Thank you.

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