A former adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign and transition team has struck a plea deal and is now co-operating with special counsel Robert Mueller's escalating probe into Russian interference in the election.
Rick Gates pleaded guilty in a Washington court on Friday to conspiring against the United States and lying to investigators. Gaining his co-operation gives Mr. Mueller another way to get information on Mr. Trump's circle as he seeks to determine whether the President or his team colluded with Kremlin efforts to help him win. The plea also turns up the heat on Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump's former campaign chair and Mr. Gates's ex-boss, who faces a raft of charges for allegedly laundering money, lobbying illegally and ripping off several banks on mortgage applications.
Mr. Mueller's wide-ranging probe has levelled accusations of well-organized election meddling at a Kremlin-connected internet company and uncovered contacts between Trump advisers and Moscow's intermediaries. The past week has seen a rapid expansion of the investigation, with Mr. Mueller cutting three plea bargains and laying fresh charges in two different aspects of the case.
Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates were first charged last fall over their secret lobbying for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. An ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Yanukovych was overthrown in a 2014 revolution. Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates allegedly directed a campaign to influence U.S. politicians and media on Mr. Yanukovych's behalf, but failed to register as lobbyists, then tried to cover up their involvement by deleting e-mails.
Mr. Gates on Friday admitted to working with Mr. Manafort to launder millions of dollars in payments from Mr. Yanukovych's political party into the United States without paying taxes on it. He also admitted to lying to Mr. Mueller's office earlier this month about a March, 2013, meeting between Mr. Manafort, another lobbyist and an unnamed member of Congress. Mr. Gates told investigators Ukraine had not been discussed at the sit-down when, in fact, he and Mr. Manafort had written a report for their Ukrainian clients about the discussion.
Just one day earlier, Mr. Mueller added several further charges to the indictment against Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates. Among other things, he accused Mr. Manafort of cheating four different financial institutions to take out large loans he was not entitled to. In one case, Mr. Manafort is accused of having his daughter claim a New York apartment as her residence so he could borrow against it, but actually rented it out on Airbnb.
In exchange for his plea, Mr. Gates will see all other charges dropped. His legal team and Mr. Mueller are recommending a sentence of between 57 and 71 months in prison.
On Friday, Mr. Manafort vowed to fight on. "This does not alter my commitment to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me," he said in a statement.
Mr. Gates first served Mr. Trump as deputy chair and later as a go-between from his campaign to the Republican National Committee. He remained in the organization even after Mr. Manafort was booted after the revelation of his links to Mr. Yanukovych and remained with the transition team between the election and Mr. Trump's inauguration.
Mr. Mueller has already compelled guilty pleas and co-operation from two other former Trump campaign figures: former adviser George Papadopoulos and ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn. Earlier this week, he also cut a plea deal with Alex van der Zwaan, a London-based lawyer who helped Mr. Gates draft a report putting a positive spin on Mr. Yanukovych's jailing of his political rival Yulia Tymoshenko.
Last week, Mr. Gates indicted 13 Russians, including an oligarch close to Mr. Putin. The group is accused of organizing pro-Trump rallies and running an extensive social media campaign to promote Mr. Trump and attack Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.