Former Trump campaign aide expected to plead guilty in Russia probe

Rick Gates, a former top adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign, is expected to plead guilty as soon as Feb 23, 2018, according to two people familiar with his plea agreement.
Rick Gates, a former top adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign, is expected to plead guilty as soon as Feb 23, 2018, according to two people familiar with his plea agreement.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A former top adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign indicted by the special counsel was expected to plead guilty as soon as Friday (Feb 23), according to two people familiar with his plea agreement, a move that signals he is cooperating with the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

The adviser, Rick Gates, is a longtime political consultant who once served as Trump's deputy campaign chairman.

The plea deal could be a significant development in the investigation - a sign that Gates plans to offer incriminating information against his longtime associate and the former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, or other members of the Trump campaign in exchange for a lighter punishment.

The deal comes as the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has been raising pressure on Gates and Manafort with dozens of new charges of money laundering and bank fraud that were unsealed on Thursday. Mueller first indicted both men in October, and both pleaded not guilty.

Gates' primary concern has been protecting his family, both emotionally and financially, from the prospect of a drawn-out trial, according to a person familiar with his defence strategy who was not authorised to publicly discuss the case and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

If Manafort continues to fight the charges in a trial, testimony from Gates could give Mueller's team a first-person account of the criminal conduct that is claimed in the indictments - a potential blow to Manafort's defence strategy.

It was unclear exactly what Gates might have to offer the special counsel's team, whether about Manafort or about other members of the Trump campaign. Neither indictment indicated that either Gates or Manafort had information about the central question of Mueller's investigation - whether Trump or his aides coordinated with the Russian government's efforts to disrupt the 2016 election.

But Gates was present for the most significant periods of activity of the campaign, as Trump began developing policy positions and his digital operation engaged with millions of voters on platforms such as Facebook. Even after Manafort was fired by Trump in August 2016, Gates remained on in a different role, as a liaison between the campaign and the Republican National Committee. He travelled aboard the Trump plane through Election Day.

 
 

The indictments detailed a wide-ranging scheme by Gates and Manafort to hide from US authorities millions of dollars they had earned as political consultants in Ukraine. The men worked in various capacities with Viktor Yanukovych, the onetime Ukrainian president and a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Mueller's team found that more than US$75 million (S$99 million) passed through offshore accounts, and that Manafort laundered more than US$30 million to pay for real estate and luxury goods in the United States. Gates transferred more than US$3 million from the offshore accounts, court documents show.

After their work was disclosed in news reports in August 2016, when the two men were working for the Trump campaign, they "developed a false and misleading cover story" to distance themselves from Ukraine, according to Mueller's prosecutors.

The court papers unsealed Thursday describe an intricate scheme by Manafort and Gates, trying to shield tens of millions of dollars from US tax authorities by transferring the funds through foreign bank accounts, including in Cyprus and the Seychelles.

"Manafort and Gates hid the existence and ownership of the foreign companies and bank accounts, falsely and repeatedly reporting to their tax preparers and to the United States that they had no foreign bank accounts," the new indictment said.

The work the two men did for their firm, Davis Manafort, connected them to numerous people with ties to the Kremlin. One was Oleg Deripaska, an aluminum magnate and an ally of Putin. Deripaska has been denied a visa to travel to the United States because of allegations that he is linked to organized crime operations, claims he has denied.

In 2008, Gates took over the firm's duties in Eastern Europe, where he worked on business development and contract negotiations.

Besides the charges against Manafort and Gates, the special counsel's team has secured guilty pleas from two of Trump's advisers.

Michael Flynn, the president's first national security adviser, and George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy aide during the campaign, have both pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with the inquiry.