Bending Toward Justice: What Rick Gates’ plea deal means for the Russia investigation

Photo: (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The mounting legal and financial pressure on Rick Gates, President Donald Trump's former deputy campaign manager, became too much to bear and led Gates to plead guilty on Friday and agree to cooperate with Special Counsel Robert Mueller in the sprawling Russia investigation. For years, Gates handled the details of Paul Manafort's dirty work. Now he'll unload those details, and more, to Mueller's team of investigators and prosecutors.

As part of his plea deal, Gates agreed to testify “fully, completely, and truthfully,” before the Grand Jury and at “any and all trials,” including Manafort’s criminal trial, set for later this year. In this article, my colleague Bernie Dennler detailed Gates and Manafort’s long-standing business relationship, and suggests a variety of ways Gates will be of assistance to the Special Counsel’s office.

None of the documents filed in court on Friday as part of Gates’ guilty plea and cooperation agreement mentions Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. None mention the Trump campaign. The question now is what does Gates know about the inner workings of the Trump campaign, the campaign’s contact with Russia, and anything that might suggest that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians to interfere with the 2016 election.

On Friday afternoon, Gates appeared before Judge Amy Berman Jackson in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., and plead guilty to two counts: (1) conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and (2) making a false statement to the FBI. Remarkably, the latter charge relates to lies Gates told the FBI on Feb. 1, during his proffer to the Special Counsel’s office that ultimately led to the plea agreement. That kind of charge is almost unheard of. When a potential cooperating witness makes a proffer to the government, the session is colloquially called “Queen for a Day,” because prosecutors agree not to charge the witness with any crimes disclosed. The only ground rule is that the witness has to tell the truth.

But Gates didn’t tell the truth about a March 2013 meeting Manafort attended with a member of Congress and a lobbyist where Ukraine was discussed. In fact, Manafort and Gates had retained the lobbyist to do Ukraine’s bidding in the U.S. as made overtures about joining the European Union. CNN reported several interesting details about that meeting:

That meeting, in mid-March 2013, was attended by Manafort, California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and former Rep. Vin Weber, who is now a lobbyist with Mercury LLC, according to lobbying disclosures filed last year with the Justice Department. Rohrabacher and Weber were not identified in Friday’s court filings, though their positions were referenced and the description in the court filing matches the record of the meeting in the lobbying disclosures.
Rohrabacher is one of the most Russia-friendly lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He regularly embraces Kremlin-aligned talking points and has forged friendly relations with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Rohrabacher has given private interviews to the Senate and House Intelligence committees, which are conducting their own investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Why would Gates continue to lie to protect Manafort while in the process of negotiating his plea agreement? It’s one of many mysteries yet to be solved as the Special Counsel’s investigation progresses.

The conspiracy charge captures much of the conduct detailed in the two prior indictments filed against Manafort and Gates, describing their political consulting work for Ukraine; their failure to register as agents of a foreign government; their laundering of more than $30 million through offshore bank accounts; and their failure to pay taxes on the income earned through the work for Ukraine. There are some new details, however, including efforts by Gates and Manafort in late 2016 and early 2017 to mislead the Department of Justice about their work on behalf of Ukraine. As with the indictment against the Russians and the Russian troll factory filed last week, the conspiracy charge Gates plead guilty to is a conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

After Gates appeared in court on Friday to enter his guilty plea, the Special Counsel’s office unveiled yet another superseding indictment against Manafort. Mueller’s prosecutors allege that Manafort, with Gates’ assistance, “secretly retained a group of former senior European politicians to take positions favorable to Ukraine, including by lobbying in the United States.” The superseding indictment contains five charges: conspiracy to defraud the U.S.; conspiracy to commit money laundering; failure to register as an agent for a foreign country; false and misleading statement about his status under the Foreign Agent Registration Act; and false statements to the government.

Manafort will also continue to face charges from the indictment filed against him on Thursday in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia for bank and tax fraud.

Just in the last eight days, the Special Counsel filed an indictment against the Russians; a guilty plea with an American who unwittingly assisted the Russians in obtaining false identities; a guilty plea with a former attorney and the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch who lied to prosecutors about contacts with Gates; a new indictment against Gates and Manafort for tax fraud and bank fraud; a guilty plea and cooperation agreement with Gates; and superseding indictment against Manafort.

Pretty impressive for an investigation Trump insists is a hoax.