Ex-Trump campaign aide pleads guilty in Russia probe
Washington, February 24: A former top adviser to President Donald Trump's election campaign pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and false-statements charges in the special counsel's Russia investigation.
The plea by Rick Gates revealed that he is planning to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation as it continues to probe the Trump campaign, Russian election interference and Gates' longtime business associate, Paul Manafort.
Gates, 45, of Richmond, Virginia, made the plea at the federal courthouse in Washington. He admitted to charges accusing him of conspiring against the U.S. government related to fraud and unregistered foreign lobbying as well as lying to federal authorities in a recent interview.
With his cooperation, Gates gives Mueller a witness willing to provide information on Manafort about his finances and political consulting work in Ukraine, and also someone who had access at the highest levels of the Trump campaign.
Gates' plea came a day after a federal grand jury in Virginia returned a 32-count indictment against him and Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, accusing them of tax evasion and bank fraud. The indictment in Virginia was the second round of charges against Gates and against Manafort, who has denied any wrongdoing.
The two men were initially charged last October with unregistered lobbying and conspiring to launder millions of dollars they earned while working on behalf of a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party. Gates' decision marks the fifth publicly known guilty plea in the special counsel probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin during the 2016 campaign.
The plea also comes quickly on the heels of the stunning indictment last week that laid out a broad operation of election meddling by Russia, which began in 2014, and employed fake social media accounts and on-the-ground politicking to promote Trump's campaign, disparage Hillary Clinton and sow division and discord widely among the U.S. electorate.
The charges to which Gates is pleading guilty don't involve any conduct connected to the Trump campaign. They largely relate to a conspiracy laid out in his indictments, but they do reveal that Gates spoke with the FBI earlier this month and lied during the interview.
That same day, his attorneys filed a motion to withdraw from representing him for "irreconcilable difference." The court papers accuse Gates of lying about a March 19, 2013, meeting involving Manafort, a lobbyist and a member of Congress. Gates said the meeting did not include discussion of Ukraine, when in fact prosecutors say it did.
The charges don't name the lobbyist or the lawmaker but filings with the Justice Department show Manafort and lobbyist Vin Weber of Mercury Public Affairs met with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., on that date as part of a lobbying campaign on behalf of Ukrainian interests. On Friday, Manafort said in a statement that he maintains his 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," Manafort said.
"This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled-up charges contained in the indictments against me." In court filings over the past few months, Gates gradually began to show the strain the case was placing on him and his family.