Russian links: Trump's ex campaign aide Gates pleads guilty, agrees to cooperate

24 Feb 2018


Rick Gates, a former top campaign aide and adviser to Donald J Trump's presidential campaign, has agreed to cooperate with the special counsel inquiry into Russia's interference in the 2016 election after pleading guilty on Friday to financial fraud and lying to investigators.

Meanwhile Trump's former campaign chief Paul Manafort was hit with new charges on Friday, including an allegation he secretly recruited and funded a group of former European politicians to lobby in the United States on behalf of Ukraine.

The superseding indictment was filed just a couple of hours after Gates, Manafort's business partner, pleaded guilty, and even while he was negotiating a deal with special counsel Robert S Mueller III.

Gates is now the third associate of President Donald Trump to strike a cooperation agreement with Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible ties to the campaign.

On Tuesday, Alex van der Zwaan, who worked at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and previously worked with Manafort, admitted in Washington's federal court to making false statements about in connection to work he did in Ukraine and about his interactions with Rick Gates (See: Russian links probe: lawyer admits lying to FBI on Trump ties).

Gates is a long-time political consultant who once served as Trump's deputy campaign chairman. The plea deal could be a significant development in the investigation, as Gates might offer incriminating information against Manafort and possibly other members of the campaign in exchange for a lighter punishment. He faces up to nearly six years in prison.

The agreement, which requires Gates to cooperate on "all matters" prosecutors deem relevant, appears to be a good deal for both sides. Gates could get as little as probation if he keeps up his end of the bargain, and Mueller's case against Manafort morphs from one built on paper evidence to one in which the star witness worked hand-in-hand with the defendant.

The deal came as the special counsel Mueller has been raising pressure on Gates and Manafort with dozens of new charges of money laundering and bank fraud unsealed on Thursday.

Both men were first indicted in October and pleaded not guilty. The plea agreement was part of a flurry of recent activity by the special counsel's team. Last week, 13 Russians were indicted on charges relating to a carefully planned scheme to incite political discord in the United States in the months before the 2016 election.

Gates changed his plea on Friday during an appearance in a Washington courtroom, his eyes cast down as the government outlined the charges against him. A man who had made millions of dollars lobbying in Ukraine in effect admitted that he was part of a financial conspiracy to hide the money he earned there.

He also admitted that he lied to investigators this month, while under indictment and negotiating with prosecutors, about the details of a 2013 meeting about Ukraine that Manafort had with a pro-Russian member of Congress.

What the dramatic courtroom scene might mean for President Trump depends on what Gates has to offer the special counsel, though the plea agreement is further evidence that the Trump campaign attracted a cast of advisers who overstepped legal and ethical boundaries.

The indictments so far have not indicated that either Gates or Manafort had information about the central question of Mueller's investigation - whether Trump or his aides coordinated with the Russian government's efforts to disrupt the 2016 election.

But Gates was present for the most significant periods of the campaign, as Trump began forging policy positions and his digital campaign operation engaged with millions of voters on social media platforms such as Facebook. Even after Manafort was fired by Trump in August 2016, Gates remained with the campaign at the request of Stephen K Bannon, who took over as head of the campaign.

From there, Gates assumed a different role - as a liaison between the campaign and the Republican National Committee - and travelled aboard the Trump plane through Election Day.

In addition to offering visibility into the Trump campaign, Gates might be able to provide prosecutors with glimpses into decision-making in the months after Trump's election victory. Gates was a consultant on the transition team, and in the months after the inauguration, he worked with America First Policies, the main outside group supporting the Trump presidency.

Besides the agreement with Gates, the special counsel's team has already secured guilty pleas from two of Mr. Trump's advisers. Michael T Flynn, the president's first national security adviser, and George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy aide during the campaign, have both pleaded guilty to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and agreed to cooperate with the inquiry.

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