Rick Gates, a top aide to Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign and longtime business partner of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, is ready to strike a plea deal with Russia investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller, CNN reported on Thursday afternoon. The news appears to be a potential bombshell because a plea agreement likely indicates that Gates is ready to “flip” and provide Mueller with potentially damaging information against Trump, the report said.
If Gates does indeed turn against Trump, he would become the third Trump adviser to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation into whether Russia covertly helped Trump win the 2016 election. Former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos have also pleaded guilty to relatively minor charges in the case, in exchange for their agreements to cooperate with Mueller’s probe.
In October, Mueller slapped Manafort and Gates with multiple indictments including money laundering and “conspiracy against the United States.” Both men entered pleas of not guilty, but while the 67-year-old Manafort has given no indications of changing his plea before his trial, which is expected to start in September, Gates, 45, has been negotiating with Mueller to take a guilty plea on lesser charges for the past month, according to Thursday’s CNN report.
Trump, according to an NBC News report earlier this month, has already indicated privately that a Manafort “flip” could be dangerous to him, but an unnamed White House aide told CNN that Trump is unconcerned about what Gates could offer Manafort once he takes a plea deal.
But Gates has been Manafort’s protege since 2006 and has worked closely with Manafort on political consulting jobs in Ukraine where they worked for and supported pro-Russian strongman Viktor Yanukovich, helping to get Yanukovych elected president of that country, deftly helping the politician change his image as a rough-hewn thug whose political organization was riddled with organized crime figures.
Indictments against both Manafort and Gates allege that they attempted to disguise the millions they raked in from their pro-Russian work in Ukraine by laundering the money taken in by their consulting firm.
Mueller has also reportedly been investigating the June, 2016, Trump Tower meeting between a group of Kremlin-linked Russians and Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner and Manafort. Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who led the Russian group, has said that at that meeting, Trump Jr. offered to trade a rollback of economic sanctions against Russia in exchange for damaging information on Hillary Clinton that the Russian government had in its possession.
Though Gates was not at the Trump Tower meeting, if Manafort told him what happened there — as would seem likely given the close business relationship between the two — that information could prove badly damaging to Trump, if Gates were to share it with Mueller.
Gates also worked with Manafort on a series of deals that later went bad with Russian billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who later sued Manafort over the deals which left Manafort owing millions to Deripaska. Deripaska is widely believed to be tied closely both to the Kremlin and to the Russian mob.
When Manafort went to work for the Trump campaign in 2016, as a way to help pay off his debt, he reportedly offered secret “briefings” to Deripaska with inside information from the campaign. According to Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Deripaska took those briefings and conveyed the confidential information he learned from Manafort to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
If the so-far unverified Navalny account is accurate, and Gates knew about the “briefings,” that information would also be of great interest to Mueller, as it would show direct cooperation between top Trump campaign officials and the highest levels of the Russian government, up to Putin himself.