EXCLUSIVE: Mueller's star witness says cooperating in the Russia probe was like 'political waterboarding' and wants Trump to pardon him

  • Former deputy Trump campaign chairman Rick Gates rewrote history in a wide-ranging interview with Insider and in his upcoming book, "Wicked Game: An Insider's Story on How Trump Won, Mueller Failed, and America Lost."
  • Gates pleaded guilty in 2018 to making false statements to the FBI and conspiracy against the US. He later testified in court that he committed a multitude of financial crimes with his former boss and the Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
  • But Gates struck a different chord last week, telling Insider that the charges against him were illegitimately brought and amounted to political persecution. He also compared the cooperation process to "political waterboarding" in his book.
  • Asked whether he's now backtracking on his guilty plea and sworn testimony, Gates denied that, telling Insider, "I've accepted complete responsibility for my actions," even if "the case against me was done in terms of manipulation."
  • He also said he "absolutely" wants Trump to pardon him, adding, "This whole thing has been about him from the start, and a lot of the rest of us just got swept into it."
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Former deputy Trump campaign chairman Rick Gates struck a somber tone in the summer of 2018 when he testified against his former boss and mentor, Paul Manafort, and admitted to a judge, jury, and packed courtroom that he committed crimes at Manafort's direction.

He pleaded guilty earlier that year to two felony counts of making false statements to the FBI and conspiracy against the US. Gates then became the special counsel Robert Mueller's star witness in the Russia investigation, giving prosecutors detailed descriptions of how he and Manafort violated federal tax laws, concealed foreign bank accounts, and embezzled money while working as political consultants.

"I greatly regret the mistakes I have made, and I have worked hard to honor my commitment to make amends," Gates told the judge overseeing his sentencing hearing in December. "I accept complete responsibility for my actions."

But Gates struck a different chord in his upcoming book, "Wicked Game: An Insider's Story on How Trump Won, Mueller Failed, and America Lost."

In the book, an early copy of which was obtained by Insider, Gates rewrote history, saying the indictments in Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference amounted to "political persecution," and that the charges against him were "manufactured and manipulated."

He also compared the cooperation process to "political waterboarding" and echoed Trump's claim that Mueller's prosecutors were biased crooks who were out to get the president and his loyalists.

In an interview with Insider, Gates was asked if, in light of his newly articulated views, he's now backtracking on his guilty plea and sworn testimony.

He denied that, saying, "I've accepted complete responsibility for my actions. I mean, I'm not — I'm not pulling back, and I accepted my fault, even if the case against me was done in terms of manipulation. I know the mistakes I made, and I'm not countering anything. I wrote this book because I want people to fully understand my side of it, and they can then add their own judgment and conclusion."

"I want to move forward and move on," he added. "It's been a difficult journey, but I want people to understand the truth, and frankly, I don't think this type of special counsel investigation should ever happen again to any American."

When asked how he squares admitting to his crimes with the claim that Mueller ran an illegitimate investigation, Gates said that the FBI and Justice Department "aren't corrupt by nature, but obviously there are a few bad apples. Based on the information I had at the time, when I decided to plead guilty, I made the best decision I could for my family."

'Flipping'

Gates went on to say that he believes he was manipulated because Mueller's team indicted him as part of an effort to get bigger fish. "Their target was clearly the president," he said. "So the manipulation part comes in because they needed people like me to get to other people."

Gates was referring to a common legal tactic known as "flipping," which prosecutors routinely employ in criminal investigations to get cooperating witnesses.

"So after two years of compromising people's lives and spending more than $32 million of taxpayers' dollars, what did Mueller show?" Gates wrote in his book. "The ending they were after never materialized. That ending had been disproven by the FBI back in August 2017. The best the Mueller Report would offer was a potential case for obstruction of justice, which Mueller himself wasn't willing to prosecute; obstruction of justice for a case that never should have moved forward in the first place."

Mueller's team did not find sufficient evidence to charge anyone with a criminal conspiracy in the Mueller probe. That said, the special counsel's report noted that "the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

Mueller also did not make a "traditional prosecutorial judgment" on whether Trump obstructed justice, citing a 1973 Office of Legal Counsel memo saying a sitting president cannot be indicted. But prosecutors documented 11 potential instances that could rise to the level of obstruction and wrote that Trump's many attempts to exert control over the Russia probe failed largely because his aides refused to carry out his orders.

On Gates' claim that the cases against him and Manafort were motivated by political bias, the Justice Department inspector general determined last year that there was no "documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations" into Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and the Trump campaign aides George Papadopoulos and Carter Page.

A separate, ongoing investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation spearheaded by Attorney General William Barr has not uncovered any illegal or criminal activity. And last month, a veteran DOJ prosecutor working on that investigation resigned amid concerns that Barr was trying to force the release of a politically charged report targeting Trump's enemies before the election. FBI Director Chris Wray also opened an internal review of the Flynn case following pressure from the president, but the inquiry has not released any evidence of wrongdoing.

The DOJ asked a federal judge to dismiss its case against Flynn — who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI — this year, but the judge denied the request. A three-judge appeals court panel reversed that decision and ordered the case to be dismissed, but the full appeals court panel vacated that ruling while it reviews the case.

Barr also opened another investigation into the Flynn case in May, focused specifically on unfounded allegations that his name was improperly "unmasked" in US intelligence reports. The US attorney who was tapped to oversee that investigation resigned last week.

Gates, for his part, said he "would absolutely disagree" with the inspector general's findings and that "just because he's inspector general of a government agency doesn't mean we have to believe him. There is no way that somebody can mentally and subconsciously separate their bias about a candidate or president and say they can still do their job."

Asked whether he'd like Trump to pardon him, Gates said, "Absolutely. This whole thing has been about him from the start, and a lot of the rest of us just got swept into it."

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