Russia collusion Special Counsel Robert Mueller is zeroing in on longtime Trump adviser and political dirty-trickster Roger Stone, and his contacts during the 2016 presidential campaign with Rick Gates, who was a top Trump aide, not only during the campaign, but into the early months of the Trump administration. The new insight into Mueller’s investigative priorities was revealed in a report by CNBC news network on Thursday.
Gates has been cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, at least since February 23, when he entered a guilty plea to lesser charges than the multiple conspiracy and money laundering counts that he originally faced. In exchange, Gates agreed to “flip,” and provide information to the Mueller investigative team.
Gates was also the longtime business partner and protege of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager, and who is also under indictment by Mueller on a long list of charges including money laundering and bank fraud. Unlike the 69-year-old Manafort, who has vowed to fight the charges brought by Mueller, the 46-year-old Gates chose to cop a plea and become an informant.
What is the significance of the possible Stone-Gates connection that has seized Mueller’s attention, according to the CNBC report? Gates started his career as a political operative when he interned at a powerful consulting firm co-founded by Stone, called Black, Manafort Stone, Kelly, which is where he also met and formed a close professional bond with Manafort.
Not only do the two men have a long association that extended into the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, both have their own connections to important players or groups linked to the Russian operation to interfere in the election and tip it toward Trump.
In Stone’s case, the longtime Trump mentor and friend was in contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during the campaign, as the so-called “transparency” site released thousands of emails from inside the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign that had been stolen by Russian hackers and transmitted to Assange’s organization, according to investigators.
Stone appeared to possess — and boast about — advance knowledge of when WikiLeaks would release the emails, at times when the site’s possession of the stolen material had not been publicly reported. In one instance, Stone, by his own claim, had dinner with Assange on August 3, 2016. The next day, in an interview with the far-right conspiracy theory radio show InfoWars, Stone predicted that “devastating” material about Clinton would soon be released.
In the interview, Stone said that Assange would “furnish” the material on Clinton. But Stone later denied meeting Assange and claimed that his description of dinner with the WikiLeaks founder was just a joke. But Stone is known to have communicated with Assange via private Twitter messages, at least, and on August 21, 2016, he predicted on his own Twitter feed that Clinton campaign Chair John Podesta would soon have his “time in the barrel.” The following month, in a radio interview, he predicted that “the WikiLeaks people [will] drop a payload of new documents on a weekly basis fairly soon.”
On October 7, WikiLeaks published the first of numerous daily installments of hacked emails from Podesta’s private account. The Podesta email dump came on the same day that the infamous “Access Hollywood Tape,” was released, showing Trump making a series of degrading and offensive comments about women, and bragging about his propensity to force himself on women sexually.
Gates has his own potential Russia collusion connection that has apparently raised Mueller’s suspicions. When he and Manafort operated as political consultants in Ukraine, they formed a business association with a Russian military intelligence agent, Konstantin Kilimnik. They continued to communicate with Kilimnik through the 2016 campaign, according to Mueller’s findings revealed in a court document filed on April 3.
Gates told Mueller that he knew the whole time he was in contact with Kilimnik that his business associate was “a Russian intelligence officer with the GRU,” which is Russia’ military intelligence service. And it is the GRU that has been identified as the Russian intelligence agency that carried out the email hacks of Democrats that ultimately led to the WikiLeaks releases.
In a court filing on December 4 of last year, Mueller wrote that Kilimnik was “currently based in Russia.” Conversations between Gates and Stone during the campaign possibly could have focused on the connection between WikiLeaks and the GRU. But while Stone’s lawyer, Robert Buschel, admitted to CNBC that Stone and Gates did communicate during the campaign, he said that any interaction they had was not “substantive or meaningful.”