Below is my column in USA Today on the Rick Gates indictment and his potential as a witness for the prosecution in the Mueller investigation. The other obvious concern for the defense should be General Michael Flynn. It is curious that there was no indictment of Flynn given his similar alleged violations involving work as a foreign agent. Flynn would also be a natural target for prosecutors in seeking cooperative witnesses. With George Papadopoulos’ plea and cooperation, other witnesses will start to consider whether they will get a chair when the music stops. The President’s attack on Papadopoulos certainly sends a chilling message for those who might follow his lead, but these are heavy potential charges for potential targets.
Here is the column:
It is the Washington version of the Academy Awards. In the midst of the latest high-profile investigation in the Beltway, press and pundits spent the weekend speculating on whose names would be in the indictment envelope delivered by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Now we know. The winners are former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former deputy Rick Gates. Manafort was no surprise, but Gates’ selection in the supporting actor category was the most notable aspect of the indictment.
The indictments against the men contain 12 counts that include conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading Foreign Agents Registration Act statements, false statements and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.
The charges move the Russian investigation into a new and dangerous phase for the White House. The risk is not that the charges present a clear and present danger to President Trump or his inner circle. The charges are focused on transactions unrelated to the campaign. However, that is not the point. Such charges are meant to concentrate the minds of people such as Manafort and Gates. These charges can easily result in a decade in jail for the men, ages 68 and 45 respectively. For men who have never been charged with a crime, this is the big gulp moment that prosecutors hope will get them to consider flipping as cooperative witnesses.
One of Mueller’s top aides, Andrew Weissmann, has a reputation for flipping witnessesand stretching the criminal code to pressure targets. With two middle-age businessmen in the dock, Weissmann no doubt likes his odds. However, all attention is likely to focus on Gates.
Gates could well seal a case against his former associate if he were to go all in on the prosecution’s narrative. If he could implicate Manafort and potentially others, Gates could well walk with little or no jail time. This is why charging him with Manafort maximized the pressure. For Gates, going to trial with Manafort is a chilling prospect alone. Manafort has long had a controversial reputation in Washington as someone who actively cashed in with shady international figures and clients.
I had a friend who warned me that Manafort was not someone I wanted to have dealings with. That is why his choice as the campaign manager (and an effective spokesman) was so surprising. Indeed, a White House source dismissed the indictment on the ground that these were “bad guys” before and they were “bad guys” when they left. Of course, in the middle was a decision to hire both “bad guys.” That is hardly a winning narrative.
The problem for these men is that these charges are already difficult to defend against. They largely deal with the failure to file needed papers or failing to reveal required information. For jurors, such charges are the easiest to convict on. When you add a narrative of living the high life off money from shady characters such as Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, the combination of the technical and the salacious can be fatal.
Even if he were going to cooperate, Manafort might not have much to offer on Trump. He could end up the highest-ranking defendant, and prosecutors are not likely to trade away charges lightly against such a figure. Manafort has the unfortunate status of being the matinee defendant for Mueller at this point. Unless Manafort could bag Trump, he is too much of a prize for Mueller to toss away in exchange for avoiding a trial.
That brings us back to Gates.
The prosecutors will resist any effort to sever the trials of these two men. Gates will have to answer these charges sitting next to a guy who will be radioactive as a codefendant. The only lingering inducement for Gates would be the hope of a pardon at the end of this process.
If there are no charges brought on Russian collusion and Trump is effectively cleared, the president may be tempted to use his pardon authority as he did with the controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Any such pardon would be equally unwise, but Trump has shown the intestinal fortitude to grant such relief despite the political backlash. That could be enough for Gates to hold firm in a united front with the least optimal codefendant.
Manafort and Gates have long enjoyed the status of power brokers in Washington. They are part of the “made men” of the Beltway — people who could get things done with a single call to the right people. These are men who made millions on their relationships. They are genetically averse to standing alone. As Henry Hill said in the final scene in Goodfellas, you are left “an average nobody” and “get to live the rest of (your) life like a schnook.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley