WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Paul Manafort, a former campaign manager for President Donald Trump, surrendered to the FBI today and another ex-aide pleaded guilty to lying to agents in the most serious steps yet of a federal probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Manafort, 68, a longtime Republican operative, arrived at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Washington field office to hand himself in after being indicted by a federal grand jury on charges including money laundering and conspiracy against the United States.
In a separate announcement today, the office of Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller said former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty on Oct. 5 to making false statements to FBI agents in the Russia probe. Papadopoulos is an international energy lawyer.
Manafort associate Rick Gates was named alongside Manafort in the 12-count indictment, which was the first from Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in last year’s campaign to try to tilt the vote in Trump’s favor.
Neither Trump nor his campaign were mentioned in the indictment and many of the charges, some of which go back more than a decade, appear related to Manafort’s work for Ukraine’s pro-Russian government and political figures there.
Russia investigations by Mueller and several congressional panels have cast a shadow over the Republican president’s first nine months in office and have widened the rift between Republicans and Democrats.
Manafort ran the Trump campaign from June to August of 2016 before resigning amid reports he might have received millions in illegal payments from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
Lawyers for Gates and Manafort did not immediately return calls for comment.
An initial court appearance and arraignment for the two men was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. (1730 GMT) on Monday in Washington before Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson, a court spokeswoman said.
Trump, who has denied any allegations of collusion with the Russians, reiterated on Monday his public frustration with the Mueller probe, which he has called “a witch hunt.”
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????,” Trump said in a Twitter post on Monday morning, referring to his Democratic presidential rival last year, Hillary Clinton.
Legal experts said the indictment could just be an opening salvo by Mueller. It put pressure on Manafort to cooperate with Mueller’s Russia investigation, said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. “If I were the defense lawyer I’d be looking into cooperating,” he said.
CONSPIRACY AGAINST U.S.
U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia interfered in the election to try to help Trump defeat Clinton, by hacking and releasing embarrassing emails and disseminating propaganda via social media to discredit her. The Kremlin has denied any meddling.
The indictment contains counts of conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, acting as unregistered agents of Ukraine’s government, false and misleading statements and failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, the special counsel said.
The charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer called for the Trump administration to avoid interfering with Mueller’s probe.
“The rule of law is paramount in America and the investigation must be allowed to proceed unimpeded. The president must not, under any circumstances, interfere with the special counsel’s work in any way,” Schumer said.
Trump reiterated his denial of any collusion in a Twitter post on Monday.
Wall Street opened lower on Monday, pulling back from a strong rally last week, as investors assessed the fallout of the indictment.
Mueller has been investigating Manafort’s financial and real estate dealings and his prior work for that political group, the Party of Regions, which backed former pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.
A federal grand jury issued the indictment on Friday and a federal judge ordered it sealed, a source briefed on the matter told Reuters.
Gates was a longtime business partner of Manafort and has ties to many of the same Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. He also served as deputy to Manafort during his brief tenure as Trump’s campaign chairman.
Manafort was indicted on nine counts and Gates was indicted on eight counts.