WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A former senior official in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty on Friday (Feb 23) to conspiracy against the United States and lying to investigators, and is cooperating with a federal probe into Russia’s role in the election.
Gates, who was a deputy campaign manager for Trump, is being investigated by the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, which is probing alleged Russian meddling in the US election.
He had been facing decades in prison on much more serious charges, including bank fraud and conspiracy to launder money, but under the charges he pleaded guilty to, he faces a maximum sentence of nearly six years.
Prosecutors said Gates could win a reduction in his sentence based on the extent of his cooperation with Mueller’s probe.
The plea increases pressure on Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager for five months in 2016, to also seek a plea deal. However, Manafort said in a statement issued after Gates’ plea deal that he maintained his innocence.
Cooperation by Gates, and potentially by Manafort at a later stage, could provide a rich vein of information for Mueller, whose Russia probe includes looking into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to interfere in the election.
Gates’ plea deal appeared to be motivated by his concern over legal costs and the strain on his family. The sentencing guidelines for the charges he pleaded guilty to call for a prison term of between 57 and 71 months.
None of the charges to date against Gates or Manafort have made reference to any connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 election or possible collusion. Russia has denied the accusations of interference. Trump has said there was no collusion, and has also denied any attempt to obstruct Mueller’s probe.
Mueller, appointed by the Department of Justice last year, has a broad brief that allows him to look into any wrongdoing uncovered in the course of his investigation.
While it was not clear what Gates might be able to reveal to investigators, he was on Trump’s campaign team when his then-boss Manafort attended a meeting in June 2016 at Trump Tower in New York between senior campaign aides and a Russian lawyer.
Mueller, according to sources familiar with the investigation, has taken a keen interest in whether Democrats’emails allegedly hacked by Russian intelligence and made public six days after that meeting were discussed then.
Mueller is also interested in differing accounts of the Trump Tower meeting, including one that was written aboard Trump’s plane with Trump’s assistance, the sources said.
Gates helped run the campaign’s day-to-day operations, played a key role at the Republican National Convention at which Trump was chosen as the party’s nominee and accompanied Trump on campaign flights.
He stayed on in the campaign even after Manafort resigned in August 2016 amid a controversy over cash payments from Ukraine. After Trump’s November 2016 election win, Gates was on Trump’s presidential transition team and his inaugural committee.
Gates and Manafort were first been charged in October, and on Thursday, Mueller piled up more pressure on the pair – filing a 32-count indictment against them that includes charges of bank fraud and lying on tax returns.
Prosecutors allege that Manafort, with Gates’ assistance, laundered more than US$30 million (S$40 million) and duped banks into lending money. It says the pair used funds from secret offshore accounts to enjoy a life of luxury.
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Moscow sought to meddle in the campaign to tilt the vote in favor of Trump, the Republican candidate, including by hacking the emails of leading Democrats and distributing disinformation and propaganda online.
A court filing on Friday charged that between 2008 and 2017, Gates and Manafort devised a scheme to defraud the United States to obtain money and property by making false representations to banks and other financial institutions. Toward the end of that period they worked for Trump’s campaign.
In March 2016, the same month he joined the campaign, Manafort fraudulently obtained a loan for over US$3 million on a Manhattan condominium, prosecutors say.
In a letter to relatives and close friends that was obtained by ABC News, Gates expressed concern that a long trial would take a heavy toll.
“The reality of how long this legal process will likely take, the cost, and the circus-like atmosphere of an anticipated trial are too much. I will better serve my family moving forward by exiting this process,” he wrote.
Gates, who has a young family and who has been under house arrest, has been peppering the court since last year with requests to travel, coach his children’s sports teams and attend school functions. Even before he pleaded guilty on Friday, Gates was seeking a request from the court to go on vacation.
The White House said on Friday that the latest charges against Manafort and Gates were unrelated to Trump.
“This indictment has nothing to do with the White House or the president. As you know, we have been cooperative with the special counsel and as we continue to see, there’s no evidence of collusion, no evidence of wrongdoing,” Mercedes Schlapp, the White House strategic communications director, told Fox News Channel.