Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates pleads guilty in Mueller probe, but Paul Manafort maintains innocence
Sentencing guidelines advise a prison sentence of 57-71 months in exchange for helping in the investigation; Gates had faced as many as 12 and a half years
Rick Gates, a former adviser on Donald Trump’s 2016 US presidential campaign, has pleaded guilty in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
In making his plea just before 3pm in Washington, Gates’ defense team said that he had agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in Moscow’s alleged election meddling.
That will put additional pressure on his former partner, Paul Manafort, who continues to maintain his innocence on charges of bank fraud and tax evasion.
Gates has pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement and one count of conspiracy against the US; the judge has scheduled a status update for him for May 14.
The plea is expected to add pressure on Manafort - who, along with Gates, was hit with a 32-count indictment on Thursday - to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation.
But Manafort has not bowed, saying in a statement: “Notwithstanding that Rick Gates pled today, I continue to maintain my innocence.
“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.”
After Manafort made that remark, Mueller hit him with another charge, of secretly paying former European politicians to lobby on behalf of Ukraine.
The indictment accuses Manafort of paying the former politicians, informally known as the “Hapsburg group,” to appear to be “independent” analysts when in fact they were paid lobbyists. Some of the covert lobbying took place in the US.
The indictment says the group was managed by a former European chancellor. Court papers accuse Manafort of using offshore accounts to pay the group more than 2 million euros.
Gates has made the fifth publicly known guilty plea in the special counsel probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin during the 2016 elections. A spokesman for Mueller did not respond to requests for comment.
The Gates plea comes a day after a federal grand jury in Virginia returned a 32-count indictment against him and Manafort accusing them of tax evasion and bank fraud. It was the second round of charges against the two men.
Gates initially pleaded not guilty and has been facing up to 12 and a half years in jail – based on a 12-count indictment handed up in October. Sentencing guidelines advise a prison sentence of 57-71 months for a plea deal.
The indictment accuses him and Manafort of acting as unregistered foreign agents and conspiring to launder millions of dollars they earned while working on behalf of a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party.
His guilty plea will almost certainly reduce the prison sentence he could have faced if convicted at trial of all counts.
A sealed charge in the case this week as well as closed-door discussions in recent weeks had brought speculation that a plea deal for Gates or some other development might be near.
Gates’ lawyers had filed a motion this month indicating that they had reached “irreconcilable differences” with their client. His new lawyer, veteran Washington white-collar lawyer Thomas Green, formally took over Thursday.
Green did not respond to a request for comment Friday. Green, a high-powered defence lawyer, won a plea deal for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert after he was charged with concealing nearly US$1 million of US$1.7 million in secret payments to hide allegations of sexual abuse.
As he was kept on house arrest, Gates frequently pleaded with US District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson for leniency to attend sporting events with his four children.
If Gates agrees to become a cooperating witness as part of a plea deal, he could give Mueller a closer look into Manafort’s years of political consulting work in Ukraine, as well as other events that have sparked the interest of federal investigators.
Gates had access at the highest levels of the campaign at the same time that Manafort, Donald Trump Jnr and Jared Kushner met with a team of Russians in Trump Tower in June 2016.
He was also in the top ranks of the campaign when then-Senator Jeff Sessions held a pair of undisclosed meetings with Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak.
For a few months in 2016, Gates was indispensable to Trump, leading the ground effort to help Trump win the Republican nomination and flying from state to state to secure Republican delegates in a scramble that lasted all the way until the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
But his power and influence waned once Trump fired Manafort in August 2016 after the Associated Press disclosed how Gates and Manafort covertly directed a Washington lobbying campaign on behalf of Ukrainian interests.
Gates survived his mentor’s ousting and worked through the election on Trump’s inaugural committee – but among Trump aides he earned the nickname “the walking dead.”
He also worked briefly with the outside political groups supporting Trump’s agenda, America First Policies and America First Action, but was pushed out of that job last year.
Gates was working for Tom Barrack, a close friend of Trump’s, when he was indicted last October.
The plea comes quickly on the heels of a stunning indictment last week that laid out a broad operation of election meddling by Russia.
The programme began in 2014 and employed fake social media accounts and on-the-ground politicking to promote the campaign of Donald Trump, disparage Hillary Clinton and sow division and discord widely among the US electorate, according to court documents.