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Ex-Trump campaign aide pleads guilty in Russia probe

Rick Gates, former deputy campaign manager for Donald

Rick Gates, former deputy campaign manager for Donald Trump, walks to his vehicle after a status conference at the U.S. Courthouse in Washington on Dec. 11, 2017. Credit: Andrew Harrer

Rick Gates, a former top official in President Trump’s campaign, pleaded guilty Friday afternoon to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, striking a deal to cooperate and provide information to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s ongoing investigation.

The plea caps a tumultuous 24 hours for Gates in which he was hit with fresh charges, changed lawyers and admitted crimes.

The guilty plea also marks a busy period for Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and related issues. He charged 13 Russians this month with participating in a criminal scheme to disrupt the election and a London-based lawyer pleaded guilty Tuesday to lying to FBI agents on the case.

According to a criminal information — a document filed earlier Friday with the permission of the defendant — Gates conspired to defraud the United States regarding the money he and his business partner Paul Manafort earned while working for a political party in Ukraine and lied to the FBI in a Feb. 1 interview about a 2013 meeting between Manafort, a lobbyist, and a congressman.

That FBI interview came as Gates was trying to negotiate a plea deal. In the interview, Gates claimed there had been no discussion of Ukraine at the 2013 meeting, when in fact, Gates and Manafort prepared a report detailing the Ukrainian discussions, according to the criminal information.

Gates’ plea raises the pressure on Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. Both men were hit with a 32-count indictment in Virginia on Thursday, following an earlier 12-count indictment of the pair in the District back in October.

Manafort issued a statement Friday expressing surprise but still vowing to beat the charges.

“Notwithstanding that Rick Gates pleaded today, I continue to maintain my innocence,” Manafort said. “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. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me.”

In exchange for Gates’ plea the government agreed to dismiss all other charges filed against him in both Washington and Virginia.

While the two charges together carry a possible prison sentence of up to 10 years, Gates and prosecutors agreed he would face a recommended sentence of 57 to 71 months in prison. The final sentence will be made by a judge, after hearing from prosecutors about the crimes at issue and how useful his cooperation was to prosecutors. As part of the deal, prosecutors also dropped a forfeiture demand that could have made Gates liable for up to $18 million in payments if convicted.

Gates could provide the special counsel with valuable information about the inner workings of Trump’s operation: He served as a senior figure in the campaign and had access to the White House as an outside adviser in the early months of the administration.

The latest indictment of Gates and Manafort does not involve conduct at the Trump campaign, although the conduct in question continued during that period. Instead, the special counsel accused the men of lying on their income-tax returns and conspiring to commit bank fraud to get loans as part an elaborate scheme to use their income from a Ukrainian political party to buy properties, evade taxes and support Manafort’s lavish lifestyle.

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