Rick Gates pleaded guilty in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and is now expected to cooperate. The latest development in the quickening Mueller probe is a blow to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Gates’ mentor and co-defendant in separate criminal cases in Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
Gates’ cooperation with Mueller could also spell trouble for Trump. Gates outlasted Manafort on Trump’s campaign, serving as its liaison to the Republican National Committee in the fall of 2016 after Manafort was ousted in August. After the election Gates continued to work with figures in Trump’s inner circle: he served on the Trump inaugural committee and as late as last summer, was spotted in the White House tagging along with Tom Barrack, Trump’s good friend, for whom Gates by that time was working.
On Friday, just after noon, Mueller filed a document signaling that he and Gates had reached a plea deal. Soon after, the judge overseeing Gates and Manafort’s case, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, scheduled a plea hearing for 2 p.m. ET at the federal courthouse in D.C. It cames after reports Friday morning that Gates had decided to plead guilty in a deal with Mueller.
The filing by Mueller outlined two counts that prosecutors were bringing against Gates in a “superseding information.” An information typically precedes a plea agreement. Those charges are significantly less than what was in the earlier indictments filed against Gates, suggesting that it is a precursor to Gates pleading guilty in an agreement with Mueller.
The first count is conspiracy against the United States. The second count is for making a false statement. Remarkably the alleged false statement was made by Gates to the Special Counsel’s Office and the FBI on Feb. 1, months after the original indictment was issued, according to the information. That suggests Gates lied in the course of plea negotiations. His lawyers moved to withdraw from the case the same day.
Gates’ apparent decision to cooperate with Mueller followed an unexpected and dramatic path, including a drawn-out effort to switch up his legal team and a new set of charges filed by Mueller that were revealed Thursday evening.
Gates and Manafort, longtime business partners, were first charged with financial crimes and failure to disclose foreign lobbying last October — charges to which they both originally pleaded not guilty.
Those and the more recent charges mainly stemmed from their lobbying work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine prior to working for Trump, as well as from more recent efforts to allegedly defraud banks and pump up loans once their Ukraine project dried up. Gates allegedly assisted Manafort in laundering $30 million, according to the indictments brought by Mueller
In a letter obtained by ABC News Friday morning, before Gates’ court appearance, he told family and close friends that his “initial desire” was to “vigorously defend myself” that he had “had a change of heart.”
Gates, the father of small children, said he was concerned about “the cost, and the circus-like atmosphere of an anticipated trial” if he fought the charges, according to ABC News.
“The consequence is the public humiliation, which at this moment seems like a small price to pay for what our children would have to endure otherwise,” Gates’ letter said, according to ABC News.
Rumblings that Gates was considering a plea deal with Mueller picked up a few weeks ago, as CNN reported that he had quietly hired a new lawyer, Tom Green. Gates reportedly wavered on the decision for weeks, and even in the last few days, it was not clear whether he and Mueller would come to a deal. The process of switching up his legal team was also rocky. His original team of lawyers first sought to withdraw in early February, but only after a series of sealed filings and private briefings did Green on Thursday formally enter the case and get the judge to approve the old team’s departure.
Mueller has already publicly known to have secured four guilty pleas, in addition to the apparent deal with Gates, since taking over the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling last May. On the same day Mueller first announced the charges against Manafort and Gates, he revealed that a former Trump campaign foreign advisor, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about Russian contacts during the campaign. Former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn in early December pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about Russian contacts during the presidential transition. Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer who had worked with Gates on a report related to Gates’ Ukraine work, pleaded guilty this week to misleading Mueller’s team about his communications with Gates. Last week, Mueller also unveiled a plea deal with a Californian who admitted to helping to set up shadowy financial accounts for foreign nationals. (The Californian, Richard Pinedo, was unaware he was assisting Russians seeking to meddle in the U.S. elections, prosecutors have said.).
Additionally, Mueller brought an indictment last Friday against 13 Russians allegedly behind a disinformation campaign to influence the 2016 election.
President Trump and the White House have maintained that nothing that Mueller has revealed so far shows any “collusion” between him and Russia. Nevertheless, the various twists in the case have appeared to catch the White House off guard— for instance, as of Thursday night, the Trump’s legal team was not sure whether he’d plead guilty, according to ABC News.