- Thomson Reuters
- Rick Gates, a former adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign, pleaded guilty on Friday to two counts related to conspiracy against the US and making false statements to investigators.
- Gates’ guilty plea could be the nail in the coffin for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s defense strategy, given the two men’s long business relationship and Gates’ status as a key witness to many of Manafort’s alleged criminal acts.
- “The question is: what kind of deal is Mueller prepared to give Manafort if he pleads guilty?” said one legal expert.
Sign up for the latest Russia investigation updates here. On Friday, we saw perhaps the most significant development in the Russia investigation as it relates to Paul Manafort, the former chairman of President Donald Trump’s campaign: Rick Gates, Manafort’s longtime associate and his deputy on the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty to two counts as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
Mueller charged Gates with one count of conspiracy against the US and one count of making a false statement to federal investigators about a meeting he and Manafort attended in 2013 with California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who frequently endorses a Russia-friendly platform, and lobbyist Vin Weber, who works at the firm Mercury Public Affairs.
Mueller’s office first charged Gates and Manafort in October with 12 counts related to money laundering, financial crimes, conspiracy against the US, and failure to register as foreign agents. Manafort maintains his innocence.
According to Friday’s criminal information filing, more than $75 million flowed through the defendants’ offshore accounts and Manafort laundered over $18 million in undisclosed income with Gates’s assistance. Gates is alleged to have laundered more than $3 million. The pair allegedly emailed back and forth while conspiring to commit bank fraud.
“Fraud 101 – don’t send emails to your co-conspirators,” said the longtime former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer. “I imagine the investigators saw those and couldn’t believe their luck.”
The court filings about Gates’ and Manafort’s dealings contain other highly-specific allegations about their financial activities, foreign lobbying work, and other alleged criminal wrongdoing, as well as a document trail that supports the special counsel’s findings. For that reason alone, Mueller already appears to have a strong case against the two men.
But an additional guilty plea from Gates could be the nail in the coffin for Manafort’s defense strategy.
‘Virtually impossible’ for Manafort to avoid criminal liability
In criminal cases involving allegations of fraud, it is typically helpful to have “an insider” who can “explain to the jury why certain acts were done, documents and companies created, and the like,” Cramer said.
While the case can stand on its own, “having Gates as a cooperator make this an extremely difficult case to defend” for Manafort, he added. “There is now a tremendous amount of pressure on Manafort.”
Often described as Manafort’s “right-hand man,” Gates has been an influential Trump loyalist with wide-ranging connections to powerful leaders and businessmen around the world, including Russian oligarchs. Gates and Manafort have been business associates for nearly three decades, and both men served on the Trump campaign during a number of pivotal moments.
Manafort was forced to step down as Trump’s campaign chairman in August 2016, but Gates stayed and worked on Trump’s transition team. He was ousted from a pro-Trump lobbying group last April amid questions about Russia’s election interference, but he continued to visit the White House as late as June, according to The Daily Beast.
Gates’ guilty plea “will make it virtually impossible for Manafort to avoid criminal liability in this case,” said Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School who is an expert in criminal law.
“Gates’ testimony, combined with the forensic evidence” contained in Mueller’s court filings against Manafort and Gates “will put Manafort under extreme pressure to plead guilty as well and cooperate with Mueller,” he said.
“The question is: what kind of deal is Mueller prepared to give Manafort if he pleads guilty?” he added. “Manafort is almost 70 years old so even a plea deal for 15 years could be intolerable” for him.
Gates’ plea deal, meanwhile, appears to be significantly worse than those granted to other cooperating witnesses in the Russia investigation, according to Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor.
Gates is the fifth individual to enter a guilty plea in the investigation and the fourth known cooperating witness, in addition to former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and California businessman Richard Pinedo. Alex van der Zwaan, a Russia-linked lawyer with ties to Gates and Manafort, also pleaded guilty, but he is not cooperating with Mueller.
While Flynn, Papadopoulos, Van der Zwaan, and Pinedo each pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements, Gates’s deal includes admitting to conspiracy against the US.
“The conspiracy charge is very broad and covers a range of conduct over many years, so everything that Gates did is likely part of the conspiracy or is the ‘same course of conduct’ as the conspiracy,” Mariotti wrote.
“That’s a big reason why his deal is considerably worse than Flynn’s deal,” he added. “Flynn pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to the FBI. Other criminal conduct (like not registering as a foreign [agent]) is likely not related to the lie to the FBI.”
Gates’s decision to accept the deal despite that, Mariotti wrote, indicates that he did not expect Trump to pardon him, and believed a conviction was “highly likely” if he challenged the charges against him in a courtroom.
“This obviously puts even more pressure on Manafort, who is already buried in a mountain of charges,” Mariotti said.
“Notwithstanding that Rick Gates pled today, I continue to maintain my innocence,” Manafort said in a statement issued through his spokesman Friday. “I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence. For reasons yet to surface he chose to do otherwise. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me.”