Former Trump campaign adviser Gates pleads guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates pleaded guilty on Friday to one count of conspiracy against the United States and one count of making false statements to the FBI and special prosecutor’s office, in the latest sign that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is heating up.

Standing before the judge with his lawyer, Thomas C. Green, Gates, wearing a dark blue suit and wine-colored tie, waived his right to a trial and confirmed in a series of punctuated statements that the information he had given authorities was true. He now faces between 57 and 71 months in prison as well as a fine of up to $200,000, although that punishment is likely to be reduced at sentencing, if he continues to work with investigators.

The government has said it is prepared to dismiss the remaining charges against Gates if he cooperates.

Gates was previously indicted alongside former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in October on several counts — including conspiracy to launder money, acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, making false and misleading statements to authorities, and failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts. On Thursday, the two were indicted on 32 additional counts of money laundering and working as unregistered foreign agents for Ukraine. The new round of indictments revealed that the two had laundered more than $75 million since 2006; Manafort allegedly funneled $30 million of that through offshore accounts, while Gates transferred approximately $3 million.

Gates’ lawyer this week honed in on that disparity to argue for a lesser sentence.

“The guidelines do not take into account the disproportionate conduct between my client and Mr.  Manafort… the government has agreed I’ll have a right to argue that,” Green said in court.

A sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Friday’s guilty plea signals a momentous shift in the Mueller investigation, which focuses on Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. To date, several high-profile members of President Trump’s campaign and administration have pleaded guilty to various charges, including lying to the FBI about their respective communications with Russian officials.

While Gates had previously pledged to fight the charges in court, he told friends and family in a letter obtained by ABC News this week that he felt it would be better to “[exit] the process” in order to protect them.

“Despite my initial desire to vigorously defend myself, I have had a change of heart,” he wrote. “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. … The consequence is the public humiliation, which at this moment seems like a small price to pay for what our children would have to endure otherwise.”

Gates’ decision could mean that he is willing to cooperate with the special counsel’s office in exchange for a lesser punishment. As The New York Times pointed out this week, it’s unclear exactly what kind of information an insider like Gates would offer Mueller’s team, although he was notably “present for the most significant periods of activity of the campaign,” including as the team began interacting more and more with users on various social media platforms. Gates also worked as a liaison between the Republican National Committee and the Trump transition team following its election victory on November 8, 2016.

Gates and Manafort were alleged to have worked in some capacity as a political consultants for former Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country in 2014, amid civil unrest following accusations of fraud and corruption. Both Manafort and Gates laundered the money they received from that work through various offshore bank accounts before transferring it to accounts in the United States to avoid paying taxes on it. As ThinkProgress previously reported, the indictment this week also revealed the intricate scheme the two men allegedly used to fool financial authorities in the United States, which included swapping and editing PDFs and Word documents.

During Friday’s hearing, the judge specifically recounted Gates’ testimony in which he admitted to lying to investigators about a March 19, 2013 meeting between Manafort, an unnamed lobbyist, and a member of Congress, during which the three discussed the topic of Ukraine. Asked by investigators about the meeting later, Gates said he initially lied when he said the topic of Ukraine had not come up during the meeting, despite the fact that Manafort had told him it had. 

The congress member allegedly involved with that meeting was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who received a $1,000 campaign donation from Manafort on March 22, 2013. Rohrabacher has long been a proponent of U.S.-Russian cooperation and has often praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for his autocratic leadership style.

Gates is the third Trump associate to plead guilty in the Mueller investigation. In October last year, former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russian government agents while working for the Trump campaign; in December, former White House national security adviser and campaign surrogate Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials.

On Monday, Mueller’s team also indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities on charges of conspiring to defraud the United States. The indictment detailed a years-long effort to undermine the election through various fraudulent social media campaigns.

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