Rick Gates’ testimony in the Paul Manafort trial should teach the rest of the Trump campaign universe an important lesson: Criminals can’t trust each other. And there are a number of people in this orbit who are undoubtedly and anxiously newly alive to this.
Gates — who has agreed to a plea deal in the hope of a reduced sentence on a host of crimes in which he’s admitted his guilt (including tax fraud, bank fraud, money laundering and lying to federal authorities) — has turned on his former boss, spilling the beans about the duo’s alleged financial misbehavior and international law breaking.
Gates also admitted to fleecing Manafort. Meanwhile, Manafort’s attorneys are attempting to paint a picture of the protégé as the real perpetrator and Manafort, his boss, as the innocent dupe.
Gates told the court this week that Manafort had neglected to report 15 different foreign accounts to US officials, and conducted illicit dealings for a series of unsavory characters, including pro-Russia operatives in Ukraine.
These tidbits were especially tantalizing given the role of both men in Donald Trump’s election campaign: Manafort, who is on trial on tax and bank fraud charges, was Trump’s campaign chairman, and Gates his deputy.
That same campaign has been dogged by accusations of collusion with the Russian government — a hostile foreign power looking to interfere with an American election — which the President has long denied. But this weekend he tweeted that his son Donald Trump Jr. did in fact meet with Russians in 2016 at Trump Tower “to get information on an opponent.”
He characterized this, inaccurately, as “done all the time in politics” and “totally legal.” The younger Trump did not report the meeting with Russians to the FBI — as he should have — and when it was exposed in a New York Times report a year later issued a statement (dictated by his father, the President) claiming that it was mainly adoption laws he discussed with a Kremlin-tied lawyer (and self-described “informant”), leaving out that he’d taken the meeting in hopes of getting dirt on his father’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
This is why, with the dominoes falling in the Manafort case, it may well be not just Manafort feeling the heat. Manafort and Gates were, after all, alleged partners in crime and business, close friends whose alleged illicit and possibly illegal activities bonded them. Faced with the prospect of prison time, though, Gates gave up his friend and mentor; the threat of years behind bars is, for most people, stronger than the ties of friendship, and Gates proved no exception.
If any among the clawing, craven members of the Trump campaign (only a few of whom have survived into the administration) face the same such scrutiny by investigators, they are unlikely to be much different. Criminals, politicians and other narcissists tend to be self-interested individuals. Put enough pressure on them, and they’ll happily shift the blame (hopefully to where it really belongs).
Manafort is living that reality. He’s not just standing trial over his alleged crimes; he’s seeing his relationships crumble as association with him has becomes toxic. There was a time when it was just the opposite: Association with Manafort meant power, money and access.
Now it might be the inside of a prison cell. You have to imagine Manafort’s former friends and associates, other than Gates, are watching and taking note — including the man sitting in the Oval Office, and all the people who put him there.