Special counsel Robert Mueller secured the cooperation of a third aide to President Trump's campaign on Friday, as former deputy Rick Gates pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and lying to the FBI and promised to give information to prosecutors investigating Russia's election interference.
Gates is the fifth person to plead guilty to a federal crime in Mueller's wide-ranging probe into the Russian government's attempts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and their possible ties to Trump's campaign.
Gates and Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort were indicted in October on charges that they secretly worked on behalf of a pro-Russian political faction in Ukraine and laundered $4 million in payments through overseas bank accounts.
Prosecutors piled on another 32 counts this week, revealing another indictment accusing the two of lying to obtain millions of dollars in bank loans and of laundering more than $30 million through overseas accounts to pay for real estate and luxury goods while evading U.S. taxes.
Gates' abrupt guilty plea and his promise to cooperate with Mueller's investigation almost certainly intensifies the legal pressure on Manafort, who participated in some of the episodes that have drawn the attention of the special counsel's investigators, including a 2016 meeting between Trump's son Donald Trump, Jr. and a Russian lawyer offering damaging information about his rival, Hillary Clinton.
Mueller's office revealed yet another indictment of Manafort late Friday afternoon. The new charges, approved by a federal grand jury in Washington last week, accuse him of secretly enlisting a group of "former senior European politicians," including a former European chancellor, to advocate on behalf of the pro-Russian faction he represented in Ukraine. Prosecutors said Manafort wired the unnamed officials more than 2 million euro from his offshore accounts.
The new indictment dropped four charges that Manafort had failed to register his ownership of foreign bank accounts, though prosecutors said the accounts still form the basis of a criminal conspiracy.
Gates pleaded guilty Friday to charges that he conspired to defraud the United States by hiding the money he and Manafort earned working in Ukraine. And he pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents during a meeting three weeks ago, months after he was first indicted. Gates acknowledged that he lied to the FBI about what was said at a 2013 meeting between Manafort and an unidentified member of Congress.
Gates' lawyers moved to withdraw from his case on the day of the interview, launching weeks of legal tumult for Manafort's longtime business associate and widespread speculation about his plans to cooperate with prosecutors. That uncertainty ended on Friday afternoon, when Gates stood before a judge in federal court in Washington.
“Guilty, your honor,” Gates told U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson in a packed second-floor courtroom.
Jackson said Gates faces between 57 and 71 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but that he might serve less time depending on the extent of his cooperation with prosecutors. Jackson said Gates can remain free until he is sentenced.
Asked how he felt while leaving the courthouse after the plea, Gates smiled and said, “Very good.”
Gates's lawyer, Thomas Green, declined to comment, saying he would “keep our powder dry.”
Prosecutors also have secured guilty pleas from Trump's former national security adviser Mike Flynn and a campaign foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos, who acknowledged in court documents that he met with a person he thought was tied to the Russian government who was offering "dirt" on Clinton.
Manafort said in a statement on Friday that Gates' plea "does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges." He said he 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."
White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp told Fox News on Friday that the charges against Manafort and Gates "have nothing to do with the White House. They have nothing to do with the president."
Manafort pleaded not guilty to Mueller's first round of charges, which were filed in Washington in October. The new case against Manafort and Gates, filed in Virginia, remained mostly under seal on Friday morning. Manafort has separately filed a lawsuit asking a court to declare Mueller's appointment illegal and to undo work his office has undertaken.
Contributing: Associated Press