The Criminals Who Surrounded Donald Trump

Feb 26, 2018, 05:35 PM

Rick Gates, a former top aide to President Trump on his campaign and in the White House, pleaded guilty on Friday to conspiracy against the United States and making false statements, and agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election.

On Friday morning, the court unsealed a new “criminal information” document from Mueller, dated February 2, including those two counts. Mueller had previously charged Gates with a range of crimes, with indictments coming from grand juries in both Washington, D.C. (12 counts), and Virginia (32 counts). Gates had previously pleaded not guilty in Washington.

The plea caps a busy series of days in Mueller’s investigation, especially in relation to Gates and his former business partner Paul Manafort, who served for a time in summer of 2016 as Trump’s campaign chair. Earlier this week, a lawyer pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Gates. On Thursday, Mueller unsealed a new indictment from a Virginia grand jury with 32 counts that laid out, in extensive detail, an alleged scheme of tax evasion, bank fraud, and conspiracy. Rumors of a Gates guilty plea have circled for several days now. Thursday evening, The Daily Beast reported that Gates had fired his attorney, Tom Green; Green then denied that was true.

To a great extent, the details in Friday’s criminal information are similar to what Mueller has already alleged about Gates. More important than the details is Gates’s plea, which appears to be part of a methodical effort by Mueller to flip witnesses as part of his case, and in particular to pressure Manafort. Beyond that, Gates’s guilty plea represents the third time that a member of Trump’s team has pleaded guilty to felony charges.

The only substantive difference in the criminal information filed Friday appears to be one count of a false statement. According to Mueller, Gates met with the special counsel’s team on February 1, 2018, and told them that Manafort had told him that during a March 19, 2013, there had been no discussion of Ukraine. “In fact, as he then and there well knew,” the document states, Manafort had made no such statement, and “GATES had participated with Manafort in preparing a report that memorialized for Ukraine leadership the pertinent Ukraine discussions that Manafort represented had taken place at the meeting.”

Mueller states that a congressman was at the meeting. This appears to have been Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a flamboyant California Republican with close ties to Russia, to whom Manafort made a $1,000 contribution three days later. Gates’s then-lawyers filed to withdraw from the case the very day that Gates allegedly lied to Mueller, citing “irreconcilable differences ... which make our effective representation of the client impossible.”

Gates’s expected plea would seem to tighten the noose around Manafort. The indictments released on Thursday reveal that the federal government has extensive evidence in the form of documents and communications to back up its charges against both Gates and Manafort, including communications in which Manafort appears to describe crimes and conspiracy to commit them. Yet despite a growing mountain of evidence against Manafort, and the growing pile of penalties that he faces, he has refused to plead guilty or cooperate with Mueller.

“Notwithstanding that Rick Gates pled today, I continue to maintain my innocence,” Manafort said in a statement 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.”

While Mueller has played his cards close, the prevailing theory is that he hopes to convince Manafort to cooperate and turn over evidence about the Trump campaign. All of the charges ag...