Opinion writer

Within the space of 24 hours, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III filed superseding indictments against former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and reportedly struck a plea deal with Gates.

Lawfare blog explains:

The superseding indictment builds on the original indictment in charging Manafort with five counts of “Subscribing to False United States Individual Income Tax Returns” (26 USC §§ 7206(1), 18 USC 2). Gates is charged with five counts of “Assisting in the Preparation of False United States Individual Income” (26 USC §§ 7206(2)) and six counts of “Subscribing to False United States Individual Income Tax Returns” (26 U.S.C. § 7206(1); 18 U.S.C. § 2). Both Manafort and Gates are charged with five counts of “Bank Fraud Conspiracy” (18 USC § 1349) and four counts of “Bank fraud” (18 USC §§1344, 2). …

Once again, the indictment contains no allegations about the Trump presidential campaign or any work by Manafort or Gates relating to Donald Trump. And there are no allegations of wrongdoing by the Trump campaign or anything having to do directly with Russian election interference. But the indictment alleges bank fraud between 2015 and 2017—a time frame that indicates Manafort and Gates’s activities would have continued through both their time on the campaign and Gates’s time on the presidential transition team.

President Trump can no longer claim that this all transpired before Manafort and Gates came to work for him. Think about that: Trump’s campaign was run for a time by one alleged tax cheat and money launderer, and he continued to employ one of the two through the transition. If nothing else, we see that Trump has a knack for hiring the very worst people.

The new indictment did the trick with regard to Gates. Facing the possibility of considerably more prison time, he reportedly decided to strike a plea deal with Mueller. The Post reports:

According to a criminal information — a document filed with the permission of the defendant which traditionally signals that person plans to plead guilty — Gates conspired to defraud the United States regarding the money he and his business partner Paul Manafort earned and lied to the FBI in a Feb. 1, 2018 interview about a 2013 meeting he had had with Manafort and an unidentified lobbyist.

Gates’s plea raises the pressure on Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman. Both men were hit with a 32-count indictment on Thursday, following an earlier 12-count indictment of the pair back in October.

Yes, Gates can testify as to the “inner workings” of the campaign and the degree to which the president and/or his top advisers were aware of Russian meddling in our election. He may have knowledge about Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. Since Gates was there during the transition, he may have knowledge about two meetings Kushner had with Russians — one involving the head of a sanctioned Russian bank and one concerning a “back channel” to Russia that would be outside the purview of the U.S. intelligence community.

There is, however, one other question that looms large, taking us right into the heart of possible collusion, which Gates might be able to answer. According to news reports, Manafort was running into a desperate financial condition, yet he anxiously pursued a job with the Trump campaign and volunteered to work for free. The Post reports:

According to the indictment, Manafort’s Ukraine income dwindled in 2015, and the scheme took on a new form — getting $20 million in loans based on Manafort’s real estate properties in the United States. But to do that, the grand jury charged, he and Gates made false claims to banks about their company’s income and existing debts.

Remember that when Manafort joined up, virtually no one, including Trump, expected Trump to win. Why then, when finances are deteriorating, would Manafort strenuously pursue a non-paying job with Trump? (Time reports that one version of the story as to how Manafort got the job is that he “wrote two memos to Trump, routed through [Trump confidant Tom] Barrack, about how he might ‘professionalize’ his campaign. Barrack passed along the memos and endorsed Manafort to Trump as ‘a killer.’ Trump was instantly intrigued with the idea.”) It may also have been Trump attack dog Roger Stone who brought in Manafort. Alternatively, it just so happened that Manafort, who reportedly made millions from foreign clients, including Russia’s puppet in Ukraine, “bought a Trump Tower condo in 2006 for $3.7 million.” Indirectly, that might have been the best investment Russians ever made.

Manafort, then, eagerly joins a campaign nearly certain to lose for no pay. We can safely eliminate the possibility that Manafort was compelled by deep feelings of patriotism to lend Trump a hand. Alternatively, Manafort may have figured out a way to get rich doing this, not from Trump but from previous contacts and clients.

The special counsel reportedly is already probing whether Manafort was involved in one quid pro quo deal to get an ally nominated. Whether there were other such deals, whether Manafort was directly or indirectly working for Russians who saw value in having an ally in the Trump camp and what if any favors Manafort may have done for his foreign allies, are all topics on which Gates may shed light. With Gates in hand, Mueller may get a peek at the intersection between Manafort’s allegedly illegal finances and the campaign he was running for a time — which just so happened to be the Kremlin’s favorite in the 2016 race.