SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There are major developments in the special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. elections. New charges were unsealed against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates. And then Gates flipped by pleading guilty and is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller's team. NPR's justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here. Ryan, thanks so much for being with us.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: My pleasure.
SIMON: Rick Gates has pleaded guilty to two charges and is now cooperating with Mr. Mueller. Any kind of surprise?
LUCAS: Not really. We'd known that this was a possibility because we've known that Gates had been in discussions with prosecutors about a possible plea deal for several weeks. And Gates is pretty young. He's in his mid-40s, has a young family. And he's been struggling to pay the legal fees that have been piling up. And he was facing a lot of prison time. Remember, Gates was first indicted along with Manafort in October. They faced 12 counts in that indictment, including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and money laundering.
Gates and Manafort had both pleaded not guilty to those charges. They had been fighting them since October. But on Thursday, they were hit with new charges - 32 of them in all. And these were related to other financial crimes - so tax evasion, bank fraud. Some of those alleged crimes were taking place as late as during the campaign and after. That really ramped up the pressure. And ultimately, Gates changed his mind and opted to plea.
SIMON: And what kind of deal did he get? Do we know?
LUCAS: Well, as you said, he's pleaded guilty to just two charges. One is conspiracy against the United States. That's largely about financial misdeeds. The other is lying to the special counsel and the FBI in an interview on Feb. 1. So that's just three weeks ago. That was about a meeting Manafort had with an unnamed congressman and lobbyist back in 2013. We now know that the meeting was with a California Republican, Dana Rohrabacher, and a lobbyist, Vin Weber. Now, before this deal, Gates had been facing decades in prison if convicted. Under this deal, that's no longer the case. All of the other charges have been dropped. He now faces around eight years or less if he cooperates with the special counsel's investigation.
SIMON: So conspiracy and lying to the FBI, neither of which are distinguished. But they also weren't charges about the campaign or coordination with Russia during the election. So what does this represent for the Mueller probe?
LUCAS: You're right. I mean, none of the charges in the Manafort and Gates indictments were about Russia. They were tied to political consulting and lobbying work they had done in Ukraine. But this is still a significant development for Mueller's team because of who Gates is. He was the deputy campaign chairman for Trump. It's not exactly clear what information Gates has to offer Mueller. But because of his role as a senior official during the campaign, he could conceivably have information about things that transpired during the race, including possible contacts with Russia.
But his plea deal also really kind of increases the pressure on Manafort. And Manafort, of course, was the campaign chairman during the thick of the race in the summer of 2016. For now Manafort put out a statement saying he still maintains his innocence. He said he hopes Gates would fight the charges. But Gates' decision to plea doesn't change Manafort's decision to keep on fighting.
SIMON: And where does this leave the Russia investigation?
LUCAS: Well, Mueller took over the investigation last May. So that's about nine months ago. So far, he's charged 19 people. That includes 13 Russians who were indicted last week, of course, for conducting basically information warfare, interfering in the election. Gates' guilty plea now makes that five guilty pleas that Mueller has secured. So Mueller and his team are making headway. They're still plugging away. It's unclear exactly where Gates' plea takes this. But certainly, Mueller's folks are working on that central question of the investigation, which, of course, is whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
SIMON: NPR's justice reporter Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.