Mueller focus shifts to Rick Gates

The focus of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s investigation is about to shift to Richard Gates.

Gates, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortWebb: Questions for Robert Mueller Top Mueller prosecutor Zainab Ahmad joins law firm Gibson Dunn Russian oligarch's story could spell trouble for Team Mueller MORE’s ex-business partner and President TrumpDonald John TrumpKim Kardashian thanks Trump, Kushner for helping efforts to free A$AP Rocky from Swedish jail North Carolina mayor denounces 'send her back' chant after Trump rally Judiciary chair demands Hope Hicks clarify closed-door testimony MORE’s former deputy campaign chairman, has been quietly cooperating with federal prosecutors for over a year on Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

He’s also a cooperating witness to other undisclosed federal probes.

A certain air of mystery has long surrounded exactly what Gates is telling his interlocutors, with periodic court filings offering up only nebulous details about his interactions with federal prosecutors.

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But a Friday filing deadline in his case could offer new details about the extent of his cooperation. It could also provide new clues about the status of Mueller’s sprawling inquiry — which many believe is close to wrapping up.

If prosecutors and attorneys for Gates say he is ready to be sentenced, it will likely be taken as another sign of closure for the special counsel’s two-year probe.

“I think we have to take that as another sign that things are near the end,” said Randall Eliason, a George Washington University law professor and former assistant U.S. attorney. “What that would mean is not only that he is done cooperating, but that they don’t anticipate any trials where they would want him to testify.”  

Gates, one of the first Trump associates ensnared in Mueller’s investigation, was indicted alongside Manafort in October 2017 on charges stemming from their lobbying for Russia-backed politicians in Ukraine.

Gates eventually struck a deal to cooperate with prosecutors in February of last year, pleading guilty to one conspiracy count and to making a false statement to the FBI and the special counsel’s office.

Gates was Mueller’s star witness last summer in the criminal trial of Manafort in Virginia, which led to the former campaign boss’s conviction on eight counts of bank and tax fraud and hiding a foreign bank account.

Mueller’s prosecutors have repeatedly sought to delay Gates’s sentencing, a signal prosecutors are still gleaning information from him and want to keep him on the hook until he’s finished cooperating, which could include potentially testifying at upcoming trials. Typically, prosecutors and attorneys for a defendant want to delay his or her sentencing until the cooperation is completed, so the individual is incentivized to provide as much information as possible and gets the maximum benefit for helping officials.  

In a joint status report with Gates’s defense attorneys in mid-January, Mueller cited Gates’s cooperation in “several ongoing investigations” and said that, as a result, “the parties do not believe it is appropriate to commence the sentencing process at this time.”

Their next status report is due by midnight Friday.

Mueller has conducted his inquiry into Russian interference and links between the Trump campaign and Moscow largely behind the scenes, leaving the public blind to the value or extent of information Gates has provided.

Legal analysts say that, if there was any conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to meddle in the election, Gates would be in a position to know about it. Gates worked directly under Manafort on the campaign and went on to serve on Trump’s transition team.

“Whatever Manafort knows about Russian collusion with the campaign, Gates is going to know it too, either because he personally participated in it, or because Manafort kept him apprised of what was going on,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor in D.C. “I suspect he is a pretty big-ticket witness for Mueller.”

Gates, like Manafort, has connections to a Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian translator suspected of ties to Kremlin intelligence who has emerged as a key person of interest in Mueller’s investigation. Gates and Manafort worked with Kilimnik for years on their Ukraine lobbying.

Mueller’s prosecutors described, during a sealed hearing in Manafort’s case in February, an August 2016 meeting between Manafort, Gates and Kilimnik in New York during which they discussed a so-called Ukraine peace plan. Manafort has been found to have lied about that and other interactions with Kilimnik during the presidential campaign, in breach of his own plea agreement with the special counsel.

Gates is also viewed as a potentially significant witness in the federal probe of Trump’s inaugural committee being run by prosecutors in Manhattan, having worked for the organization under Tom Barrack, the committee’s chairman. Gates has not been named by officials as cooperating in that investigation.

Thomas Green, Gates’s attorney, declined to comment for this story.

“Given the positions he held, he is potentially in a position to be very important and the fact that the sentencing has been continued suggests he was still providing valuable information about something,” Eliason said. “But that’s about all we can surmise.”  

Gates is Mueller’s only known remaining cooperator who has not moved toward sentencing. If Friday’s filing indicates he is ready to be sentenced, it will tie up a significant loose end in Mueller’s probe amid intense speculation it is wrapping up.

Friday’s deadline comes just days after Manafort was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison in successive court appearances, a key milestone in the investigation. The special counsel’s office said Thursday that Andrew Weissmann, one of the lead prosecutors on the Manafort case, would soon leave, meaning Mueller’s team of attorneys will dwindle to twelve.

“If they were issuing the big conspiracy indictment and he was going to be a star witness, then they would likely continue to put it off until after he testified at that trial,” said Eliason. “If they say he’s done … it likely means there are no more indictments coming where Gates would be a potential witness.”

Alternatively, another delay in Gates’s sentencing could mean the end is further off for Mueller, but not definitively. Prosecutors may delay his sentencing because he is still actively cooperating in other probes, but not Mueller’s investigation.

Federal sentencing guidelines call for Gates to receive between 57 and 71 months in prison – roughly 4 1/2 to six years – and face a fine of up to $200,000. However, he is likely to get credit for his cooperation, meaning his ultimate sentence could be much less.