(Bloomberg) -- Behind the headline-grabbing developments in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, one potentially pivotal witness has been quietly cooperating for almost a year on multiple investigations.
Rick Gates, who spent about a decade working for Kremlin-backed political players in Ukraine, served as Donald Trump’s deputy campaign manager for four months and then became the campaign’s liaison to the Republican National Committee. Gates never joined the administration, but he remained in Trump’s orbit until his indictment in October 2017.
On Tuesday, Mueller’s office told a federal judge that Gates is still cooperating on “several ongoing investigations” ahead of being sentenced on charges of conspiring to defraud the U.S., and it will provide another update by March 15.
This continuing collaboration suggests Gates may have significant information to give the special counsel about key moments in the campaign and perhaps afterward. It also creates a black box for Trump’s legal team because they don’t have an agreement with Gates’s lawyers to share information, as they do with some of Mueller’s other witnesses. Gates’s lawyer declined to comment.
Unlike his former boss and business partner Paul Manafort, who was ousted as Trump’s campaign chairman in August 2016, Gates stayed in close contact with Trump’s associates well after the election.
In April 2017, six months before Gates was charged with tax crimes and conspiracy against the U.S., he dined at an upscale Washington restaurant with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, President Trump’s close friend Tom Barrack and seven Middle Eastern ambassadors. Weeks later, he appears to have met with Mnuchin and Barrack again for an appointment marked as personal on the Treasury secretary’s calendar.
It’s unclear what was discussed at the meetings, whose attendees were made public through a Freedom of Information Act request for Mnuchin’s calendar by American Oversight, a watchdog group, but they suggest Gates may have had other conversations that he’s been sharing with Mueller’s team over the past year.
For example, Gates told prosecutors in debriefings that Manafort told him around January 2017 that he was using intermediaries to “get people appointed in the administration,” according to a filing released Tuesday by Mueller’s team.
While Mueller has moved to wrap up cases involving other high-profile figures in his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign -- including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, ex-Trump fixer Michael Cohen and former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos -- the special counsel has repeatedly won delays in the sentencing of Gates.
Gates, 46, has been described by Mueller as Manafort’s “right-hand man,” who helped him launder millions of dollars he collected lobbying for a pro-Russia Ukrainian political party.
Manafort met Gates when he was an intern for Manafort’s consulting firm, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly. Gates followed Manafort when he started a new firm, and the two men traveled the world together aiding foreign politicians, including Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed former president of Ukraine.
When Manafort was brought into the Trump campaign in March 2016 by Barrack, Gates was an ever-present figure by his side, according to campaign aides.
When Manafort was fired after his work for Ukraine drew negative media attention, Gates became the liaison between the campaign and the Republican National Committee. That was a surprise to campaign staffers, who questioned his role and why he outlasted Manafort. A firm that he and Manafort started was paid $70,000 by the RNC.
After the election, Barrack, who said he met Gates during the campaign, asked him to work on Trump’s inauguration committee.
Once Trump took office, Gates went to work for America First Policies, an advocacy group started by several campaign staffers to help promote Trump’s agenda. He left the group a few months after Trump took office when media reports focused on Manafort’s connections to the Russian government.
The same month Gates left America First Policies, he was hired by Barrack to work as a consultant looking for investment deals in digital infrastructure, such as data centers, radio towers and communications technology, despite having no apparent background in those areas.
Mueller has been investigating links and coordination between the Russian government and associates of the Trump campaign and any matters that may arise out of that investigation.
An improperly redacted legal filing by Manafort’s lawyers this month allowed an unintended look at one area that Mueller is exploring -- and that Gates may know about.
The document revealed that Mueller believes Manafort lied by denying he shared polling data during Trump’s campaign with Konstantin Kilimnik, an alleged Russian intelligence officer, and about conversations he had with Kilimnik about a Ukraine peace plan that could have led to the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Manafort met with Kilimnik in Madrid in January or February of 2017, a spokesman for Manafort said.
Gates has also been questioned by Mueller about Psy Group, an Israeli firm that’s said to have drawn up a social-media manipulation plan to aid the Trump campaign, according to a report by the Daily Beast.
Gates proved his mettle as a cooperator in the federal trial of Manafort last summer. He served as Mueller’s star witness, testifying over several days about crimes he said they committed together while working as political consultants in Ukraine. He endured withering cross-examination that focused on his extramarital affair and money he stole from Manafort.
Despite the bruising that Gates took from Manafort’s lawyer, he stuck to his story of how he helped Manafort by lying to his accountants and bookkeepers, used offshore accounts in Cyprus to move millions of dollars for him and fabricated several documents to deceive banks when Manafort was drowning in debt.
Now, Gates is living at home in Richmond, Virginia, and was freed from a curfew and GPS monitoring two months after the trial.
Gates has kept under the radar, unlike Mueller’s other cooperators. Cohen, Trump’s former fixer and personal lawyer, did an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and plans to testify before a House committee on Feb. 7. Papadopoulos has repeatedly blasted Mueller’s investigation on Fox News. By contrast, Gates has made no public comment outside the courtroom.
If Mueller wants to use Gates to testify against other defendants, he’ll have to overcome his history of lying and stealing, which Manafort’s lawyer spelled out so effectively. During Manafort’s trial, Gates told the jury he was trying to make amends.
“I’m here to tell the truth,’’ Gates told the jury. “I’m taking responsibility for my actions. Mr. Manafort had the same path. I’m here. I’ve accepted the responsibility, and I’m trying to change.’’
--With assistance from Saleha Mohsin, David Voreacos and Andrew Harris.
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