Trump aide's 'very favorable' plea deal ramps up pressure on Manafort, experts say

PHOTO: Pictured (L-R) in this combination photo are Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, Nov. 6, 2017, in Washington, D.C. PlayAP | Reuters, FILE
WATCH How ex-Trump aide's guilty plea may affect Russia probe

A former Trump aide’s plea deal on Friday appears to dangle the possibility that he will get probation – no jail time – after cooperating with the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

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Buried in the plea agreement with Richard Gates, who was an aide to President Donald Trump’s election campaign, is a reference by prosecutors to a special provision in sentencing guidelines that offers a great reward for those willing to help them.

“A defendant who has provided substantial assistance in the investigation or prosecution of another person who has committed an offense may be sentenced to a term of supervised release that is less than any minimum required by statute or the guidelines,” the statute says.

The plea agreement goes further, saying that if Gates fully cooperates, he will “then be free to argue for any sentence below the advisory sentencing guideline range.” And prosecutors added in the deal that they “may not oppose defendant’s application” if his help proves valuable.

PHOTO: Rick Gates, former campaign aide to President Donald Trump, departs after a bond hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Dec. 11, 2017.Joshua Roberts/Reuters, FILE
Rick Gates, former campaign aide to President Donald Trump, departs after a bond hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Dec. 11, 2017.

Veteran white-collar criminal defense lawyer Robert Bennett told ABC News that the deal looks to him like a “very favorable” outcome for the 45-year-old Gates, who pleaded guilty Friday to federal conspiracy and false statements charges.

“He’s a young man," Bennett said. "He has a family. There is a big difference between a couple years in jail and 10 or 15 or 20. And there is the possibility that the government, if he is fully cooperative, could come in and go along with a probation.”

However, although the deal looks on its face to be largely positive for Gates, one source familiar with the case urged caution.

“While I agree the possibility of probation is very good, there are a number of red flags here,” the source told ABC News.

Cooperation, according to the source, is going to be very difficult for Gates. “They’ve already shown him he has no margin for error,” the source said. “The government holds all the cards, and the other problem will be if [the government] thinks he has more to give than he does.”

If Gates is found to be uncooperative, the government could snap back charges, and Gates - as part of the plea agreement — will have no opportunity to appeal.

Before making the deal with Gates, special counsel Robert Mueller’s team likely heard a great deal about what the defendant could offer, said Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

“If he has reached a cooperation agreement, they should know absolutely everything,” Bharara told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" Sunday. “You don’t sign on the line that is dotted, as they say, unless you know everything.”

Bennett said the real loser in the arrangement is Gates’s longtime colleague and former co-defendant, Paul Manafort.

“He’s in a very difficult position,” Bennett said.

PHOTO: Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort departs the federal court house after a status hearing in Washington, D.C., Feb. 14, 2018.Shawn Thew/EPA via Shutterstock
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort departs the federal court house after a status hearing in Washington, D.C., Feb. 14, 2018.

Manafort and Gates were initially indicted in October on alleged money laundering, failing to properly register as foreign agents, and lying to federal officials about lobbying and other activities that took place before and are unrelated to Trump's presidential campaign. Both men pleaded not guilty at the time and were out on bail under home confinement. Last week, prosecutors added a fresh round of charges that included conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal and false statements.

The plea agreement with Gates on Friday appears to put even more pressure on Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chairman during the summer stretch in 2016 leading into the Republican National Convention.

Manafort continues to maintain his innocence. But the new filings in the Gates case suggest prosecutors have placed the lion’s share of blame for the criminal conduct on Manafort. Repeatedly, the document refers to conduct by Gates coming “at Manafort’s instruction,” and describes him as “helping Manafort” transfer his funds in order to evade U.S. taxes.

“Gates, with Manafort’s knowledge and agreement, repeatedly misled Manafort’s accountants,” the court filing says at one point. At another, it says that “Gates, acting at Manafort’s instructions, did not report the accounts’ existence to Manafort’s tax accountants.”

ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams said on "This Week" that Manafort may himself be just a step on the special counsel's path to other targets.

PHOTO: Robert Mueller is seated before President Barack Obama and FBI Director James Comey at an installation ceremony at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Oct. 28, 2013. Charles Dharapak/AP, FILE
Robert Mueller is seated before President Barack Obama and FBI Director James Comey at an installation ceremony at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Oct. 28, 2013.

“I think for the government to want to make a deal with Gates, there has to be something more here,” Abrams said. “You have to view all of these as building blocks … all of these plea deals as building blocks. The reason the government is making these deals. The reason they are eliminating an enormous amount of counts against these various people is because they believe they have something to offer them. Something beyond what we already know.”

The first step that the special counsel’s office indicated it would take to reward Gates for his cooperation is dismissal of a hefty indictment filed in Virginia last week against him, court records show. The charges could be dismissed as early as Monday.

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