As the newest cooperator for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Rick Gates gives prosecutors a powerful weapon in pursuing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and possible election collusion with Russia.
Gates, who pleaded guilty Friday in Washington, was Manafort’s right-hand man and worked with him for a decade in his political consulting firm in Ukraine before joining him in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Gates also remained on the Trump campaign after Manafort resigned in August 2016, and he helped plan Trump’s inauguration.
In a victory for Mueller, Gates admitted he conspired with Manafort to defraud the U.S. by failing to disclose their work as unregistered foreign agents in Ukraine, and by hiding his offshore bank accounts. Mueller also extracted an admission that Gates had made a false statement to his office. It was the fourth criminal conviction that the special counsel has obtained from someone who lied to U.S. authorities.
Gates, 45, is now poised to testify against Manafort, who was indicted twice alongside him—first on Oct. 27 on money laundering and unregistered lobbying charges, and then Thursday on tax and bank fraud charges.
Mueller’s office is prepared to have Gates tell jurors how he helped Manafort use dozens of offshore accounts to launder money, while failing to disclose their Ukrainian work as required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, according to former prosecutors.
“This is someone who was on the inside of what the government was alleging, knows Manafort perhaps better than anyone else, and has admitted committing the very crimes that Manafort is accused of,” said Lee Vartan, a former federal prosecutor.
It’s not clear from public filings what, if anything, Gates could offer Mueller’s team about whether anyone in the Trump campaign colluded with Russians—the central mission of Mueller’s appointment. But Democrats in Congress pounced on the plea as a sign that Gates may have more to offer.
“Gates was also in a position to observe the inner workings of the campaign at its most senior level” and could prove a key source of information on potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, said top House Intelligence Committee Democrat Adam Schiff. He added that Gates and other cooperating witnesses should at some point testify to the committee as part of its “ongoing investigation into the Russian active measures campaign during the 2016 election."
Gates had a unique vantage point on a pivotal year. He joined the Trump campaign after Manafort became campaign chairman in April 2016, and stayed on after Manafort left in August, becoming the campaign’s liaison with the Republican National Committee. He also helped plan Trump’s inauguration, worked closely with a Trump-affiliated political action committee, America First, and was present, according to a person familiar with the situation, at several meetings at the White House during the administration’s early months.
Gates admitted Friday to the core of the government’s case—that he engaged in a decade-long criminal conspiracy that hid tens of millions of dollars that moved through offshore accounts. Manafort’s firm earned some of that money while performing unregistered lobbying and other activities for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his political party, he admitted. Gates said he made various efforts to hide their lobbying of Congress, the executive branch, and others on behalf of their Ukrainian clients.
They engaged in a “global lobbying strategy to promote Ukraine’s interest,” Gates admitted in a court document. The scheme to hide their lobbying efforts included false letters to the Justice Department sent in November 2016 and February 2017, Gates admitted.
Manafort and Gates also “secretly retained a group of former senior European politicians to take positions favorable to Ukraine,” including lobbying in the U.S., without disclosing that they were paid lobbyists, Gates admitted. At Manafort’s behest, Gates wired more than 2 million euros from offshore accounts to pay the ex-politicians.
Gates’s plea ends weeks of speculation that he was preparing to cooperate with Mueller, who has charged 19 people in his investigation and secured four other guilty pleas. Gates, a father of four young children, would be a reluctant witness against those Mueller is investigating.
“Despite my initial desire to vigorously defend myself, I have had a change of heart,” Gates said in a letter to his family, according to ABC News. “The reality of how long this legal process will likely take, the cost, and the circus-like atmosphere of an anticipated trial are too much. I will better serve my family moving forward by exiting this process.”
Gates admitted on Feb. 1 to making a false statement during a proffer at the Special Counsel’s office, a question-and-answer session that’s often a prelude to a plea agreement. One of the caveats of such a session is that the would-be cooperator must be truthful.
That same day, Gates’s three attorneys asked the court to be allowed to step aside, citing “irreconcilable differences” with their client. The charging document unsealed Friday, which included the false-statement charge, was filed in court on Feb. 2.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, presiding over Gates’s guilty plea, said he faces between 57 and 71 months in prison under advisory guidelines.
Prosecutors can seek a lighter term based on what they get out of him in the coming months, but they’re under no obligation to do so. If Gates lies again, prosecutors can break their deal with him and bring charges they’ve previously leveled against him.
Gates, appearing in a blue suit, white shirt and a tie, was soft spoken and respectful during the proceedings. He appeared to be accompanied only by his attorney, Tom Green.
According to Paul Fishman, the former U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Gates could help bolster what was already a solid case. “The indictments alone reflect what appears to be an incredibly strong case against Manafort simply based on the documents and the tracing of the various transactions,” Fishman said.
Manafort maintained his innocence and said he would continue to defend himself.
“I had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence,” Manafort said in a statement. “For reasons yet to surface he chose to do otherwise.”
—With assistance from Billy House