Opinion | Judiciary

The method to Mueller's madness: What the Gates deal really means

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The plea agreement by Rick Gates racks up a fifth felon for special counsel Robert Mueller. Once again, despite a pleading guilty to two counts, including an ominously worded "conspiracy against the United States," there remain no counts, let alone convictions, on collusion between the Russians and the Trump administration.

Indeed, the Russian collusion investigation may be the most misleading work since Adam Sandler's "Funny People." First and foremost, it is important to note that Mueller has found real crimes in these five plea agreements, just not the crimes that prompted his appointment. Paul Manafort and Gates alone account for 58 of the roughly 100 criminal counts against 19 different defendants.

Moreover, the recent 32-page indictment of an array of Russians and Russian entities detailed a conspiracy beginning in 2014 to interfere with our elections, but as yet not a conspiracy connected to the Trump campaign. So this is like going to a movie thinking it was about a different subject but still liking the surprise plot. This recent plea deal seems to be all about Manafort rather than Donald Trump. Manafort is not the villain expected, but he is pretty diabolical.

Gates has added another false statement conviction, which is a crime that is ubiquitous in Washington scandals. His "conspiracy against the United States" is actually another fraud allegation that is unconnected to Trump, the campaign, or the election. Facing dozens of counts, Gates pleaded to a generic false statement count and a single fraud count. The expectation is that Gates is more relevant in building the case against Manafort than a theory of Russian collusion.

Indeed, the most interesting subject being pursued by Mueller may concern a bank referenced in the superseding indictment only as "Lender D." This may be a reference to the Federal Savings Bank in Chicago, which gave Manafort a surprising loan of $16 million in December 2016 and January 2017. As with other dealings, these loans are alleged to have been based on falsely reported income and assets by Manafort, with the assistance of Gates.

While the superseding indictment treats the dealings with "Lender D" as a matter of financial fraud crime, there is a far more serious connection that Mueller may be trying to establish with an appointment in the Trump administration. In August 2016, the president of the Federal Savings Bank, Stephen Calk, was named to President Trump's Council of Economic Advisers. The appointment raises the obvious concern of a quid pro quo arrangement with Manafort.

This allegation is notable because there are reports that bank employees raised concerns over the three loans for homes in New York City and the Hamptons in December 2016 and January 2017. One employee reportedly indicated that pressure was applied to sign off on the loans.

This is still not an allegation linked to Russian collusion, but it would be the first to allege serious criminal conduct touching upon the administration itself. When Gates was first indicted, I wrote a column saying that Gates was the guy to watch and that Mueller was likely to get him to flip. Gates could seal convictions against Manafort who held the top spot as chairman of the Trump campaign. However, there could be another and more intriguing reason for wanting Gates to cooperate.

The collusion theories proffered by Trump critics have, thus far, been facially dubious. Take the Trump Tower meeting that House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has cited as "ample evidence" of collusion. The meeting itself seems to disprove a conspiracy of collusion. The Russians began this effort in 2014.

Yet, in June 2016 a British music promoter, Rob Goldstone, was used to get Donald Trump Jr. into a meeting with the promise of a Russian lawyer with evidence of illegal foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation. If there was prior collusion, why the pretext? Moreover, I am skeptical that Russian intelligence would run a high-risk operation against our elections then expose themselves and the operation in an open meeting with Trump Jr. and anyone he wanted to bring with him.

Finally, if getting dirt from Russians on a presidential candidate is criminal, there is little distinction can be drawn with the funding of the Christopher Steele dossier. Not only did the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee secretly fund the dossier, and only recently admit its funding, but it used the former British spy to gather information against Trump from Russian and other foreign sources.

Mueller has yet to cite the Trump Tower meeting in a single filing. However, he might be intrigued that the silent party sitting in that meeting with Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner was Manafort himself. While I am doubtful that any competent Russian spy would go to  Trump Jr. to collude, Manafort would seem an almost irresistible target. Manafort received millions for working with some of modern history's worst figures from former head of the Angolan Unita rebels Jonas Savimbi to former Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko to former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

However, it is his work for Viktor Yanukovych that has led to the most relevant questions. Manafort was an adviser to Yanukovych and his Ukrainian presidential campaign with the Party of Regions. Yanukovych was viewed as a Vladimir Putin stooge, and his election led to the "Orange Revolution." He also worked with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in advancing Russian interests.

Yanukovych was accused of various crimes, including prior convictions, from corruption to an association with an assassination. He was specifically alleged to collude with Russia in its interference with the Ukrainian election. He would ultimately flee to Russia. He was later placed under U.S. sanctions on the Treasury Department's specially designated nationals list by President Obama. That was Manafort's key client.

So if the Russians really wanted to collude, who would they go to? The son or son-in-law of Trump or the lawyer who was receiving millions for years from Russian-backed figures? None of this means that there was collusion. Right now, the record makes those claims highly dubious. However, the pile of charges and the Gates plea could be an effort to shake the one tree that is known to have had Russians in it.

At this point, the only thing more surprising than finding actual collusion would be such a conspiracy that did not include Manafort. However, he is a hardened target. That is why Russians and Ukrainians gave him millions. Mueller could be trying to see if a plea and dozens of charges will finally shake Manafort and his evidence free.

Alternatively, with his close associate taking the stand against him, Manafort has to presume a likelihood of conviction. At 68, and facing almost that number of charges, Manafort may now face a limited choice between a guaranteed plea or the prospect of a pardon. That is precisely where Mueller wants him.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.