When Rick Gates struck a plea deal last month with special counsel Robert Mueller, the 45-year-old former Trump campaign official likely avoided decades behind bars and salvaged a chance to watch his children grow up.
The question is what Gates offered Mueller in return. Though it is a virtual given that Gates will sell out his business partner and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, less understood is the direct threat Gates could pose to President Donald Trump.
That’s the conclusion of several lawyers involved in the Russia case and more than 15 current and former Trump aides and associates interviewed by POLITICO to determine how much danger Gates’s guilty plea could pose to the president and his inner circle, and how alarmed they might be by his testimony.
While Gates now wears a GPS monitor around his ankle, in 2016 he wore a Secret Service lapel pin that gave him easy access to Trump on the campaign trail and at Trump Tower.
“He saw everything,” said a Republican consultant who worked with Gates during the campaign. The consultant called Gates one of the “top five” insiders whom Mueller could have tapped as a cooperative government witness. One defense attorney in the case said that Gates’s plea has triggered palpable alarm in Trump world.
Manafort may have struck a larger public profile, but Gates spent more time in Trump’s orbit. Manafort left the Trump campaign under a cloud of scandal in mid-August 2016. Gates, his right-hand man, stayed on through the election before assisting the Trump inauguration and Trump’s early presidency.
Worst of all for the White House, Gates lacks hard-wired loyalty. He is not family like Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., or his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Nor is he among true Trump believers like Corey Lewandowski and Brad Parscale.
“Let’s be honest, Don Jr. is not ratting out his dad. Gates is different,” said Paul Rosenzweig, who served as a senior counsel to Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr.
Gates’s senior campaign role alongside Manafort, who has longtime ties to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, might give the special counsel’s team insight into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin. And his proximity to Trump early last year could make him privy to White House conversations of interest to Mueller, possibly including discussions of Trump’s May 2017 firing of FBI director James Comey.
John Dowd, the Trump personal attorney who stepped down last week, brushed aside questions about Gates’s plea, which will likely limit his sentence to a maximum of six years. “Draw your own conclusions. I’m not concerned,” he told POLITICO in an interview before his resignation.
A defense attorney working on the Russia case said the reality is different. Trump aides and associates are concerned that Gates’s cooperation will greatly increase Manafort’s legal jeopardy—adding pressure on the 68-year-old Manafort to flip against Trump and other senior campaign aides, such as Kushner. A federal judge recently said Manafort faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.
Trump aides and associates understand that Mueller is sure to ask Gates not just about Manafort but also about his interactions with Trump, his family members and his 2016 campaign team.
“They’ve been very concerned about it,” said the defense attorney. “It's something they're worried about.”
Mueller obtained indictments against Manafort and Gates last October on 12 counts related to their lobbying work on behalf of a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine and its former leader, Viktor Yanukovych. Both men pleaded not guilty to the charges, which included money laundering, tax evasion and operating as unregistered foreign agents.
Gates abandoned Manafort in late February after a federal grand jury added more new charges to the case related to bank and tax fraud, with Gates pleading guilty to two felony charges. The move had devastating implications for Manafort, with whom Gates collaborated to illegally launder large payments for the work in Ukraine, according to Mueller. Legal experts expect Gates will provide Mueller with more details about the payments and how they were concealed, which could add additional years to Manafort’s sentence if he is convicted.
Friends say the decision to turn on a friend and partner of so many years must have been painful, but that Gates likely concluded it was his only chance to have a future outside of prison.
“He still has a life ahead of him if he does it this way,” said Charlie Black, a Republican lobbyist who hired Gates in the mid-2000s.
Gates met Manafort nearly 30 years ago as an intern at the lobbying firm Manafort co- founded with Black and the GOP operative Roger Stone. They reconnected as partners in 2006 and maintained a lucrative roster of foreign clients over the next decade before linking up with Trump through Stone and Tom Barrack, a wealthy real estate executive close to both Manafort and Trump. Gates and Manafort joined Trump’s campaign in late March 2016.
Manafort rose quickly and became the campaign’s chairman, and Gates his deputy. Based at Trump Tower in New York, they ran many of the campaign’s core functions, oversaw Trump’s selection of Mike Pence as his running mate and helped to orchestrated Trump’s wider election strategy.
Gates would have been privy to a wide range of Manafort’s activities, potentially including the now-famous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting Manafort attended—along with Kushner and Trump Jr.—with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Clinton.
Gates and Manafort also emailed in May 2016 about Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadapolous’s efforts to arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian officials. While the emails appear to show Manafort and Gates dismissing that idea, many other questions remain about Papadapoulos—including whether he informed any campaign officials about the fact that he had been told about hacked Democratic emails in Russia's possession.
Manafort was ousted as campaign chairman in mid-August 2016 after the New York Times published a story describing a secret ledger he kept for his lobbying work in the Ukraine on behalf of pro-Russian politicians. But Gates, whose name never commanded headlines, stayed on the Trump campaign despite also working on the account.
A larger shakeup downgraded Gates’s role on the campaign, and he left New York for its Alexandria, Virginia-based offices, where he became a liaison to the Republican National Committee. Former colleagues said Gates wasn’t fired along with Manafort because he was competent and experienced—qualities in short supply on the Trump campaign. (“Rick gets shit done,” a person close to the campaign told POLITICO at the time.)
Before a September 2016 debate on Long Island, Gates was seen talking with casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Michael Flynn, according to the New York Times. Gates was also spotted back at Trump Tower in the days before the election.
After the election, Barrack hired Gates to run day-to-day operations for Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee; he helped to raise more than $100 million.
A growing cloud around his and Manafort’s work in Ukraine didn’t keep Gates away from Trump’s White House, either. Gates helped to organize a non-profit group, America First Policies, to boost the new administration’s agenda. The Washington Post also reported that he had visited the White House in March to discuss the group’s efforts with Trump officials. But Gates was ousted later that month after new details emerged about work he and Manafort had done for a Russian oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Barrack soon hired Gates as a political adviser. Given Barrack’s close relationship with Trump, the job kept Gates in the president’s immediate circle. Multiple sources confirmed a June 2017 Daily Beast report that Gates was seen on several occasions at the White House when Barrack was visiting with Trump.
During an October briefing on the day Mueller indicted Manafort and Gates, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged Gates’ visits but downplayed his access, telling reporters he had attended “meetings here at the White House, but nothing directly with the president.”
Gates was also fired by Barrack after the October indictment. Through a representative, Barrack declined to comment. Gates’s attorney, Thomas Green, also declined to comment.
Manafort himself issued a stinging statement in response to Gates’s plea last month.
"Notwithstanding that Rick Gates pled today, 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."
Several former colleagues disputed the idea that Gates poses a grave danger to Trump.
“I don’t think Rick has anything that’d incriminate the president or anybody else in the family in the campaign,” said Black, who said he thought the plea deal was mainly “about Manafort.
But veteran law enforcement experts said that Mueller would only grant Gates leniency on his prison sentence in return for his unrestricted testimony about subjects ranging well beyond his work with Manafort.
“He’s their bitch,” said Solomon Wisenberg, a former Starr deputy.
Gates is already enjoying some benefits from his cooperation. He is free on $5 million bail and living at his home in Richmond, and was recently granted permission to take a spring break trip with his family to Boston—though he rearranged the trip over security concerns. (In a court filing, his lawyer cited an online comment that warned: “Bring a food taster.”)
Mueller recently approved a request by Gates’s lawyers to remove the GPS tracking device he’s worn since October to prevent him from fleeing. But a federal judge denied the request, noting that Gates’s plea had “turned the prospect that he could be sentenced by a court into a certainty that he will.” She also noted that “[h]is change of heart is quite recent.”
The judge did give Gates a green light to travel without advance permission from Richmond to Washington “for meetings or activities at the request of the Office of Special Counsel or the Federal Bureau of Investigation”—an indication that Gates is already making visits to Mueller’s team to share his recollections.
John Dean, the former Richard Nixon White House counsel who flipped in 1973 to become a star prosecution witness against the Republican president, said he’s not surprised to see Mueller’s team giving Gates deferential treatment.
“I think he can fill in an awful lot of blanks,” Dean said.