Ex-Trump aide Rick Gates pleads guilty to conspiracy, lying

WASHINGTON — Former campaign aide Rick Gates pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy and making a false statement, becoming the third associate of President Donald Trump to make a cooperation deal with special counsel Robert Mueller.

The plea turns up the pressure on Paul Manafort, a close business associate of Gates who was the chairman of the Trump campaign. The two were indicted in October on conspiracy and other charges related to their lobbying work in Ukraine.

In a statement issued by his lawyer, Manafort said he has no plans to follow suit and make a deal.

"I continue to maintain my innocence," he said. "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.”

A criminal information filed ahead of the plea hearing says that between 2006 and 2007, Gates and others "conspired to defraud the United States by impeding impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of a government agency, namely the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury."

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In addition, he admits he lied about a March 19, 2013, meeting attended by Manafort, a lobbyist, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, and that he falsely denied that Ukraine was discussed and that he was preparing a report for Ukraine’s leadership.

Rohrabacher's press secretary said the meeting was a dinner with longtime acquaintances. "The three reminisced and talked mostly about politics. The subject of Ukraine came up in passing," the press secretary, Ken Grubbs, said.

"It is no secret that Manafort represented[former Ukraine president] Viktor Yanukovych’s interests, but as chairman of the relevant European subcommittee, the congressman has listened to all points of view on Ukraine. We may only speculate that Manafort needed to report back to his client that Ukraine was discussed."

Gates' plea comes a day after Mueller filed a new 32-count indictment against Gates and Manafort, hitting them with new charges of tax and bank fraud, and a day after Gates changed lawyers. It also follows a guilty plea by a Russia-linked lawyer who admitted he lied to investigators about his contacts with Gates.

Both pleaded not guilty, but in recent weeks there were signs that Gates had flipped and agreed to provide evidence to the investigation. His original attorneys asked to quit, citing "irreconcilable differences."

Gates will follow Mike Flynn, Trump's short-tenured national security adviser, and former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos in pleading guilty to charges filed by Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties to the Trump operation.

Trump has called the investigation a "witch hunt" and insists there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians.

The charges against Gates and Manafort are not related to campaign work. Instead, the indictment says, they laundered tens of millions of dollars in lobbying payments through a web of U.S. companies and banks.

Mueller, meanwhile, ratcheted up the pressure on Manafort, revealing in a filing last week that his team has amassed evidence of more alleged crimes, including doctored financial documents used to obtain a $9 million mortgage.

The Russia probe, which Mueller took over in May, began yielding fruit in October when Papadopoulos secretly pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about his contacts with Kremlin-connected Russians — communications that Manafort was allegedly aware of.

Manafort and Gates were indicted soon after. And then in December, Flynn pleaded guilty to a charge of making false statements to the FBI about his communications with Russia after the election but before the inauguration, allegedly made at the urging of Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Flynn's former deputy, K.T. McFarland.

Then, last week, Mueller unveiled the first charges directly tied to Russian meddling in the election: indictments against 13 Russian nationals accused of conducting "information warfare" through social media accounts that drummed up support for Trump and criticized Hillary Clinton.

Earlier this week, Alex van der Zwaan, a former attorney for the blue-chip firm Skadden Arps who is the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch, pleaded guilty to lying to Mueller's team about his contacts with Gates.

In recent weeks, Mueller has also interviewed key figures, including former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and fired FBI Director James Comey.

It's still not clear if Trump will submit to questioning by Mueller.

Andrea Mitchell reported from Washington, and Tracy Connor and Tom Winter from New York.