On Friday Rick Gates, former deputy campaign manager to Donald Trump, plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and lying to the FBI. His plea came in exchange for special prosecutor Robert Mueller and his team dropping all other charges against him, on the heels of a new 32-count indictment targeting Gates and former business partner Paul Manafort.
Much noise has been made in the media about Gates’ plea, and what it might mean to the ongoing Russia investigation. However, as a hyperconsumer of media, I have grown a little weary of headlines about the Russia probe, Mueller and his team, and the alleged corruption which permeated Trump’s campaign.
It’s not that I don’t think all this smoke points to a fire – the Trump campaign was assuredly rife with shady dealings and treasons big and small – but every time there is any development in the investigation there is such a rush to get it into the news cycle it is difficult to parse what each revelation means and what its real-world impact might be.
So, I thought I’d take this piece and try to figure out exactly that: what does Gates’ plea mean regarding the investigation overall?
Short answer: No one really knows, but maybe a whole lot.
Long answer: For Gates on a personal level things look very grim. Though he is no longer potentially on the hook for $18 million, he is looking at a prison sentence of between 57-71 months to be decided by a judge. That prison sentence is still substantially less than the maximum sentence of ten years for his crimes, so it seems likely that Mueller and his team will be applying, or already have applied, substantial pressure on Gates for information regarding his and Manafort’s activities with the campaign.
That could all be very bad news for Paul Manafort, who is maintaining his innocence.
He issued a statement on Friday saying:
“Notwithstanding that Rick Gates plead today, I continue to maintain my 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. This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me.”
When you’re arguing for the innocence of a man who has just plead guilty to federal charges, you’re not doing great.
There is also the matter of the $75 million that Manafort and Gates kept in offshore accounts, in addition to the $18 million they laundered, all payment for undeclared consultative work in Ukraine, potentially in collaboration with Russian officials.
No one knows what information Gates has on Manafort’s personal dealings and whether he can provide incriminating testimony against his former partner remains to be seen. However, it is a pretty safe bet that if anyone was going to be able to provide crucial evidence on Manafort directly, it’s Rick Gates.
This also might be bad news for the White House, though not necessarily for the president himself.
It’s worth bearing in mind that though Manafort left the campaign in 2016, he was the chairman. He worked closely with Gates and if collusion with the Russian government occurred it was likely under his watch.
More specifically, in the Trump Tower meeting where Donald Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort sat down with a Russian attorney and lobbyist to discuss potentially incriminating information about Hillary Clinton, Manafort has been proven to have taken detailed notes which contained the word donation. Beyond that, the substance of the meeting remains unclear, but if met with proper leverage Manafort might change his tune.
And that’s what is important about Rick Gates’ guilty plea, his ability to give the investigation leverage over Manafort. A lot has been made about Gates’ time in the White House, his role as a Trump advisor and his actions on behalf of the administration, but all of that is unfortunately without clout.
Yes, it is gross to know that the President so giddily surrounds himself with unscrupulous criminals, and it’s also not a crime for him to do that. While at the White House, Gates was an innocent man, and for all his involvement in the day-to-day, it’s very unlikely the collusion extended in any formal way to the oval office.
The real golden goose here is Manafort, and what he has to offer in detail about the campaign’s dealings with Russia.
Just to be clear, nothing is proven. We are still a long, long way from the investigation being over or being able to prove conclusively that collusion occurred. But Gates’ plea is a sign that buzzards are beginning to surround the situation, whether it goes all the way up to the President is something that only time will tell.