Gates in court: How did we defraud thee? Let me recount the ways

Rick Gates cut quite a figure on his first day as Robert Mueller’s chief witness against Paul Manafort. On direct testimony, Gates not only testified to numerous instances of working with his former partner to defraud the IRS, but to numerous instances of defrauding Manafort himself. The media glossed this as “the first Trump campaign figure to admit to crimes,” but Gates’ litany had nothing to do with political campaigning — and everything to do with avarice and self-preservation:

Rick Gates — the star witness against President Trump’s former campaign chairman — admitted in federal court Monday that he committed a host of crimes with his former boss, and confessed to stealing from him and others.

In his first hour on the witness stand, Gates catalogued years of illegal activity, saying most of his wrongdoing was committed on behalf of his former boss, Paul Manafort, while other crimes were for his own benefit, including the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Gates also made clear that he was testifying against Manafort with the hope of receiving a lesser prison sentence, having pleaded guilty in February as part of a deal with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. …

Gates said that even while he was committing crimes with his boss, he was also stealing from him. He testified that he had control over some of the Cyprus-based bank accounts that held Manafort’s money and that he created phony bills to siphon off hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I added money to expense reports and created expense reports” that were not accurate, Gates said, to pad his salary by “several hundred thousand” dollars.

As Ken Dilanian points out, this is a well-known prosecutorial tactic when dealing with witnesses who have “flipped.” They get the worst information out on direct to keep the defense from surprising the jury with shocking revelations on cross-examination. “Cooperators are not the Sisters of Mercy,” Dilanian wryly explains. It defuses whatever character attacks Manafort’s attorneys have in mind, and allows the jury to take Gates’ testimony about Manafort with an open mind, if likely without a whole lot of sympathy.

At least, that’s what Mueller’s team hopes their strategy does. Manafort might have lots of other information with which to impeach Gates, having known his partner for much longer than prosecutors. Gates has to attest honestly to all his crimes in order to get the sentencing reduction he desires, but crimes aren’t the only way witnesses get impeached. Given Gates’ critical role within this prosecution, Manafort’s attorneys will spend a great deal of time throwing everything but the kitchen sink at him.

If they can knock Gates’ credibility out, then Mueller’s team will have a much tougher job ahead of them to get a conviction. If they can’t, Gates’ testimony yesterday provides a very powerful corroboration of both the crimes and the intent to commit them. Cross-examination is expected to take place today or tomorrow, and the defense had better have a few surprises still left up its sleeves.

However, the devastating nature of Gates’ testimony still raises another question. It appears that Mueller has Manafort dead to rights and in significant danger of spending decades behind bars. Thanks to the discovery process, the defense knew this well ahead of the start of the trial. It’s precisely the kind of vise in which people with valuable information on higher-priority cases start horse trading to minimize their damage. Not only did Gates apparently fail to provide anything damning on Donald Trump or his campaign, at least as far as we know, Manafort hasn’t even attempted to follow Gates’ example and cut a deal to save his own ostrich-jacketed neck.

Is Manafort really so loyal and selfless that he’d do what’ll amount to a life sentence to protect Trump, with whom he worked briefly? Or is it just that there’s nothing at all to trade? It’s increasingly looking like the latter.