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What Rick Gates’ plea deal means for the Russia probe

Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates entered the latest guilty plea in the Russia investigation. As part of a deal cut with special counsel Robert Mueller's office, Gates admitted that he lied to investigators and conspired to conceal unregistered foreign lobby, and also agreed to be a cooperative witness. Lisa Desjardins and Carrie Johnson of NPR join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the charges.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has again swept up a former member of the Trump campaign.

    Hari Sreenivasan lays out the latest.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For Rick Gates, this day in court was different. He was in Washington, entering the latest guilty plea, the fifth so far in the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

    Gates is a former Trump campaign aide and a longtime associate of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. Today's plea is the result of a deal that Gates cut with Mueller's office.

    As part of the agreement, he admitted that he lied to investigators earlier this month, and that he conspired with others to conceal, among other things, his and Manafort's unregistered foreign lobbying. Legal pressure on the two has been mounting of late. Gates and Manafort were indicted last October on 12 counts, including a count related to money laundering.

    But just yesterday, a federal grand jury in Virginia piled on a separate indictment against the two, listing 32 total counts, including charges relating to false income tax returns and bank fraud. That said, none of the charges against Gates or Manafort, so far, explicitly deal with Russia's meddling in the 2016 election.

    In a statement this afternoon, Manafort said that, even with Gates' plea — quote — "I continue to maintain my innocence."

    Meanwhile, at the White House today, President Trump didn't address news of the plea.

    Mueller did secure an indictment related to Russia's interference last Friday against a Russian organization called the Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg. And he secured two other guilty pleas in the past week, including one from an attorney, Alex van der Zwaan, who admitted to lying to investigators.

    Former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos entered guilty pleas of their own last year.

    We explore what today's plea agreement means for the special counsel's investigation with our own Lisa Desjardins, and Carrie Johnson, justice correspondent for NPR.

    Lisa, Paul Manafort continues to maintain that he is innocent and he is going to defend himself. Why did Rick Gates plead guilty?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, talking to those close to this investigation, Gates is a father of four. This is well known.

    And he essentially felt that with the new charges coming that a trial was going to be too costly and that his chances of success were not clear. There were a tremendous amount of very serious charges with what seemed to be a lot of evidence in the latest indictments against Gates.

    What's more, Hari, is a source close to the investigation tells me that Gates' team is hoping for no jail time because of this deal. That ultimately will be up to the judge in this case, but they expect a prosecutor to make that recommendation. And now, as a result, he is offering to be a cooperative witness.

    That has very important implications for the rest of this investigation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Carrie Johnson, the prospect of no jail time certainly seems to be a big lure, but what was the evidence that was stacked against him? What's in these indictments?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    There's a lot of evidence, Hari, from paperwork with respect to bank fraud allegations and IRS allegations, that both Rick Gates and Paul Manafort failed to report more than $70 million in foreign income they had funneled through offshore accounts.

    There are allegations that they misled or doctored reports that went to accountants and other financial professionals. There are e-mails and there are conversations with others allegedly involved in this scheme.

    So there was a mounting pile of evidence against both of these men. Rick Gates does face about eight years in prison, but prosecutors have reserved the right to ask the judge for leniency if he's super cooperative, and he certainly hopes to be super cooperative against Paul Manafort and maybe other people yet to come.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Lisa and Carrie, it's a question for you both.

    Lisa, let me turn to you first.

    The president and the White House have repeatedly said these charges have nothing to do with the campaign. This is maybe money laundering or something that happened before these individuals were involved.

  • Lisa Desjardins:


    Let's talk about, what is the endgame here? The charges against Gates, you're absolutely right, have to deal right now with Paul Manafort. The charges against Manafort only have to do with financial dealings, nothing to do with the Trump campaign.

    So there are two possibilities, Hari, I think. One is that this prosecutor hopes to put pressure on Manafort by building this case, including Gates, who would be no better witness against Manafort, and to get him to say something against the Trump campaign.

    Or the special prosecutor could think that Manafort himself is someone who colluded with Russia in his work with Ukraine, and perhaps Manafort is an end target. We don't know.

    We do know that Rick Gates stayed on with the Trump campaign after Paul Manafort left. He worked with the RNC as a liaison to the campaign. And he also worked in the inauguration. He continued to visit the White House all through last year, so he's someone who had contact with the White House for one of the longest period of times of those so far involved in the investigation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Carrie Johnson?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Yes, remember that the special counsel has also secured guilty pleas from George Papadopoulos, the foreign policy aide, who acknowledged to meeting with Russians who offered some dirt about Hillary Clinton and told him that they hacked her e-mail accounts or e-mail accounts of people close to Clinton.

    And remember that the special counsel has also secured a guilty plea from Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser. We don't know yet what these people have told this prosecution team about contacts with Russians, but certainly Rick Gates was involved and met with some of these people and met with other subjects of the ongoing investigation.

    So, he's going to be an important corroborating witness potentially for some of the other cooperators already in Robert Mueller's stable. And me have access to e-mails, recordings, or other evidence that could be useful to the special counsel team. They're keeping that close to the vest for now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Lisa, there were reports late this afternoon questioning Jared Kushner's security clearances. Does this have anything to do, is this a ripple effect of the investigation that we're seeing or talking about?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, there is a lot of speculation that the special counsel is looking closely into Kushner's financial dealings as well.

    We don't know if that's directly connected to this report, the reports in The Washington Post saying that two weeks ago the FBI — sorry — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called the White House to let them know that Jared Kushner's application for a security clearance would be delayed again because of some kind of further investigation.

    No specifics in this story. And we reached out to the Justice Department, Hari. They gave us a statement back and said that there was no specifics of investigation concern given to the White House. But that's not a denial of what The Washington Post is saying, which is that there is a delay, for some reason, some investigation in Kushner's clearances.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Carrie Johnson, one of the things that the White House says fairly frequently is that this investigation will wrap up soon. It doesn't seem to be.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Not at all.

    In fact, if Paul Manafort continues on his current course, he's headed for a trial in Washington, D.C., this fall, maybe around the time of the midterms. And there's ongoing signals that the Mueller team is not yet done. They haven't yet been at this task for a year, Hari.

    We have, as you said, charges against 19 people, now five guilty pleas. No sign yet they are losing steam.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Carrie Johnson, Justice Department correspondent — justice correspondent for NPR, and our Lisa Desjardins, thank you both.

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