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To Plea or Not to Plea
The Story of Rick Gates and the Mueller Investigation
By Daphne Barak
Read by Ford Enlow
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I distinctly remember the time I first met Rick Gates, because I had already known him for a while. At the time, Donald Trump was leading two other candidates—Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich—but the race for the GOP nomination was aggressive. It was all hands on deck to get Trump the nomination. On April 26, 2016, his son Eric Trump sent me an email:
This is so fantastic Daphne—we are so happy to have friends on the Trump Team. I have cc’ed Rick Gates who is handling delegates! As always, I am here for you twenty-four seven.—Eric
At this point, Eric’s father, Donald, was still facing two other candidates who were trying to secure the GOP nomination for president: Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich.
Trump was leading, but the race was very aggressive. There was talk that even if he secured the 1,237 delegates, Cruz’s people would offer to buy some. So, Trump and his family were happy to hear that longtime friends like me and my life partner, Bill Gunasti, agreed to serve as “Trump delegates.”
Others would join up as well, as if we were all stepping aboard a giant cruise ship: excited, energized, and slightly nervous for the long, unknown voyage ahead. And Trump, a political novice, did what he always does when trying to master something new: he recruited the best, those more knowledgeable than himself, and in this case, it was experienced political operator Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates. They would run the convention and help steer the ship, hopefully all the way to the White House.
I had talked with Rick on the phone several times, but I met him for the first time a few weeks before the inauguration. It was New Year’s Eve 2016, and my family had decided to spend it in Washington, DC. Once he got word from one of the members of the Trump family that we were coming to the city, Managing Director Mickael Damelincourt suggested we try the Trump International Hotel in the capital, which had only opened in September a few months before. Mickael led us, upon arrival, to a four-course New Year’s Eve dinner. That night he was also testing the waters for the inauguration night event to take place there in twenty days. Black and yellow 2017 balloons came down from the high ceiling when we celebrated the coming of the new year at midnight. We looked up to the soaring nine-story atrium and concluded that a hotel with such a magnitude and a magnificent aura would require many more balloons than 2017 to make the right impact.
Later that night—or early next morning—as we were coming down the stairs of the BLT restaurant, situated on a large terrace inside the magnificent hotel lobby, someone from the bar yelled, “Hey, Daphne!”
I turned around only to see Laurence Gay, a close friend of the recently fired campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Next to him was Boris Epshteyn. They told me they were working on the inauguration and while we sat down and chatted, another man joined us, but he kept typing on his laptop. At one point, he lifted his eyes and looked at me. “We talked on the phone,” he said. “I’m Rick Gates.” Then he continued typing.
After Manafort was fired from the Trump campaign in August following media reports about his financial deals with foreign governments, Rick still stayed on the team. He continued to work closely with Trump and his family and was promoted to deputy campaign chair. After Trump’s victory, Tom Barrack, a businessman and longtime friend of Trump, was appointed chairman of the Inaugural Committee, and Rick was to be his deputy. Rick then was among the small team who founded the America First Political Action Committee, while continuing to work privately for Barrack.
Although Rick had never sought publicity, never asked for it, he found himself rubbing shoulders with President Trump, Vice President Pence, and some of the biggest supporters, and most substantial donors of the campaign. He might have preferred being in the background, “the Shadow Man” who got things done, but in the world of Trump, Rick Gates suddenly became the ultimate insider.
During the months that followed our New Year’s Eve encounter, Rick and I would bump into each other in the Trump Hotel. He would always be pacing around the lobby with a phone glued to his ear. Rick was tall—not quite as tall as Trump, but still not a small man. Even so, Rick has this ability to go unnoticed. A time or two, a friend would say to me, “Rick just waved hello to you.”
“He did?” I would look around. “Where is he?”
And indeed, true to a man who likes to be behind the scenes, very few knew his name, despite his key positions. Even fewer knew what he looked like. But as much as he might have wanted to stay invisible, things started to change for Rick the night the first article came out in the New York Times. I was hosting a party at the Trump Hotel with friends Dennis and Carol Troesh. At the gathering we were joined by others, including H. R. McMaster, then President Trump’s national security advisor, and I had invited Rick to join us as well. He came but sat in a corner, engaging only with my friend Katrina Pierson, who had served as Donald Trump’s spokeswoman during his campaign and who was now a spokeswoman for America First. She and Rick were both working on their laptops.
“We are dealing with a crisis,” Rick said to me as a way of apologizing. Katrina repeated something of similar nature.
The next day, I would learn from the media that Rick was fired from the America First PAC as a result of the article, which stated that although Manafort was out, Gates was still coming and going from the White House and still working for America First. The article would bring back allegations about Manafort’s reported connections to Russia, and a former president of Ukraine—allegations that had been news fodder for months. Katrina and Rick had been working on a press release during the party.
I knew Rick must have been hurt by the firing—he’d told me how fulfilled he’d felt in his role with America First—still he didn’t let anybody know it. He immersed himself in his consulting job with Tom, consumed by his work, as always. He still moved in the same circles, still was seen at the White House and the Trump Hotel.
Then, in the fall of 2017, I started to notice a change in Rick’s trademark practical and positive demeanor. During a trip to Los Angeles, Rick, who’d always been super busy, tried to push me for a meeting that afternoon.
Daphne, please, let’s meet at the Montage hotel for coffee. I’m here until tonight.
I wanted to meet with him, but I wasn’t in the city at the time. By then, Paul Manafort’s home had already been raided by the FBI, but I didn’t quite understand Rick’s urgency.
“Something’s going on,” I told Bill. “He’s acting as if he senses that time is not on his side.”
The next time Rick suggested we meet was a Sunday in September, at the Trump Hotel in DC. Rick is always very punctual, but on this day, he called at the last minute and canceled the meeting. He told me he’d been stuck in traffic, but his excuse made me believe that he needed to avoid the hotel, which was the flagship of the Trump Organization in the capital. But it was our spot. The informal nerve center where we’d all spent so many days. Was it now too public for him?
Then, in October, came the major breaking news: special counsel Robert Mueller’s team was reportedly about to indict two people related to President Trump. It dominated the news cycle and created lots of speculation. Naturally, the names Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn were on everybody’s lips. I called Rick and left a message on his mobile.
He called me back. “What do you think is going to happen?” he asked, sounding worried.
“Well,” I said, “since they haven’t searched your home or investigated you, it’s probably not you.”
Rick sounded relieved, yet even he wasn’t sure. He kept weighing in with me, back and forth. “These two people may be less senior than we think,” he said.
I didn’t tell Rick, but for some reason, my gut feeling told me that Mueller’s first indictments would be significant. We planned to meet the next day, Monday, at 5 p.m. at the Trump Hotel and catch up. Rick confirmed the time, but he acted a bit strange, as if he had a premonition that simple things, like a regular meeting, could not happen any longer.
Hours later, when Bill and I boarded the red-eye to DC, we noticed that our friend California congressman Darrell Issa was on the same flight. He too was wondering who was going to be indicted the next day. We were thinking out loud about Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort.
Up in our suite at the Trump Hotel that morning, Bill was unpacking, and I was taking a shower, when Bill suddenly screamed, “It is Rick Gates!”
I came out and saw the words scrolling at the bottom of the TV screen: “Paul Manafort and Rick Gates indicted…”
Going down to the hotel lobby later that morning was surreal. Several of Trump’s inner circle were in town and two words were everywhere: Rick Gates. Rick was well liked and well known. He’d been staying at the hotel before the inauguration and afterward. In fact, Mickael, the managing director, had told me, “Daphne, you’re staying in the same suite Rick has been staying in for months.”
I went back to my suite and tried to focus on my work, but I could not get Rick out of my mind. He had been staying here, during the days after the victory, leading to the inauguration. Did he even have time to appreciate the beauty of this old post office? The view of the White House just in front?
That Monday afternoon, Rick Gates was not at the Trump Hotel for our scheduled meeting, and yet he was everywhere. Everyone wanted to know more about what was happening to him, but no one dared to call. Rick Gates, the man whom many tried to contact for invitations to events with America’s most elite, had suddenly become radioactive. A photo of him with Trump during the campaign appeared on the big-screen TVs. There was Rick, clean-shaven and smiling, standing behind Trump, the Stars and Stripes draped in the background of both men. Since so few pictures had been taken of the man who stayed behind the scenes, they showed the same photo over and over.
When I heard in the news that he was represented that day by a public defender, I realized how unprepared he was for what was transpiring. Paul Manafort had taken the hard line of fighting the charges at any price. Over the next few weeks, journalists would speculate whether Rick, too, would toe that line or go his own and enter into a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller. And then the storm of speculation became a hurricane of headlines when Rick switched lawyers, the media reporting that his new legal team was known for cutting plea deals.
In the end, I called Rick. I had to. I had not talked with him since that Sunday before he was indicted. It was awkward for the first few seconds, but then he shared how tough and unfamiliar it had been for him. We got to the topic quickly: to plea or not to plea?
“It’s not for me or anybody else to tell you what to do,” I told him. “It is totally up to you and your family. My only advice is this: tell the truth. I assume they know it anyway, so tell the truth, whether you decide to fight or plea.”
It would be months before we met again. We had lunch at a hotel in Georgetown and took a corner booth in the restaurant, so we would have privacy and not bump into anyone. There Rick shared a few moments from the many enormous challenges he had been facing, being in the eye of a political storm. He had always been the listener, but now it was time for him to talk. And it wouldn’t just be about the investigation, it was the whole chaotic journey: everything from the colorful anecdotes of the presidential race to endearing moments with the First Family, to Rick’s entanglement with Paul Manafort, and of course, his decision to cut a deal. Most important, he wanted his four children to know—for the record—what happened. It was his chance to respond to how history would shape him. And that is why I’ve chosen to tell his story, in his own words.
THE MOMENT MY LIFE CHANGED
It was 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 29, 2017. We’d just come back from my youngest brother’s wedding. It had been a blissful family weekend. I was at home in Richmond, relaxing with my family. We were playing soccer, watching football, just a regular Sunday afternoon, until the phone rang.
It was my attorney.
On Friday, two days before, several reporters got information regarding two indictments that were on the docket for announcement on Monday. It would be the first time that special counsel Robert Mueller issued indictments. We—and by that, I mean everyone who could’ve been named as well as our associates—were speculating all weekend. I didn’t think it was me because I knew of no collusion. Yet I was nervous after the FBI’s raid at Paul’s home. But Paul had called me. “I have good sources. It’s not you,” he had said. I was still nervous because of my proximity to Paul, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner. Their names had been mentioned in regard to the investigation.
“I have got bad news,” my attorney said on the phone. “I am sorry.”
That is how I found out that I was one of the first two indicted, that the US government was formally charging me with having committed a crime. Technically George Papadopoulos had been indicted earlier that month, before Paul and me. But it was not public knowledge, since he’d offered to collaborate with the special counsel, and his collaboration was kept out of the public’s domain for a while.
According to my attorney, I had two options: “Self-surrender, or the FBI can pick you up and bring you in.”
My mind was reeling. Even before the 2016 presidential campaign, there had been allegations that the Russian government was interfering with the elections. Russia’s activities, such as they were, were disclosed publicly by members of the US Congress on September 22, 2016. A few weeks later, on October 17, agencies of the US intelligence community confirmed that Russia had been up to something, but the details were unclear. Robert Mueller was an ex-director of the FBI who had been appointed by Rod Rosenstein—the US deputy attorney general—as special counsel for the United States Department of Justice. Mueller’s job was to investigate what Russia had or hadn’t done. What concerned us was the investigation into the allegations that Donald Trump and his staff had colluded with the Russians to win the election. What if someone I’d known and worked with had somehow been involved in some sort of collusion to steal the election?
I went to talk to Brooks, my wife, who was in a different part of the house. Brooks, of course, had been following the news. Naturally she was worried, but at that moment, she became my rock. She was practical, helping me make the necessary quick decisions while being ferociously protective of our young kids. And that has been how she’s continued to behave. Of course, we had some breaking points through this long, draining process, but I felt then, and continue to feel even now, that I could not go on without her strong support.
My world changed that day, that moment, but it would take me weeks to get my head around it, to understand what had just happened. Despite all the mounting speculation, I knew—I would have bet my life—there was no Russian collusion.
But I was restless about Paul. I’d worked with him for a long time, but did I really know enough about him? It is normal that he hadn’t told me everything. But what hadn’t he told me? What hadn’t he told me that was important?
Since I was told to appear in court early on Monday, my wife helped me pack a few things, and I drove to DC and checked into the InterContinental hotel. Brooks stayed at home with the kids and tried to act like everything was normal. My lawyer came along, but just as a favor. Tom Barrack, my boss on the Trump Inaugural Committee, who had employed me as deputy chair, had decided to fire me upon hearing the news of my indictment and he refused to continue to pay the lawyer he had hired for me.
I was suddenly left with no defense on the most critical day of my life. After the attorney left, I called Brooks that night. We needed to make some decisions. Nothing prepares you for what you have to deal with when this sort of thing happens. We had no idea what we were facing, but we needed to do some sort of damage control. We decided to prepare a letter to friends and family, to alert them to what was coming and share what we were going through. It’s no easy task, to think clearly when your future is on the line. To put such volcanic emotions into logical sentences when you have more questions than answers, and people are looking for answers you can’t give. In the end, we came up with the following letter:
I wanted you to hear it from me directly and it is with much disappointment that I tell you that at some point on Monday you will hear that I am one of the individuals that will be brought in as part of the ongoing special counsel’s investigation related to the election. Unfortunately, I have no details other than being notified of the event but am absolutely resolute that I did not participate in any activity involving collusion with any Russians, and I am unaware of anyone else doing so.
Much has been written about Paul Manafort and his companies. The distorted narrative of him created by the media is unfair. It is clear that this investigation is highly politicized and an assault on those who helped elect a President that was not favored by many. I suspect that the media coverage will be nothing short of a frenzy today and in the days ahead with many opinions being written. But at this time, I would like to ask that you pray for Brooks and the kids most importantly—they have done nothing except support me throughout the election and beyond. Thank you most of all for your thoughts and prayers as we navigate this difficult time.
I sent it on Monday at 7:55 a.m., just before I went down to DC. When I got there, I was picked up by the FBI in the hotel’s garage. I was relieved that nobody had gotten a photo of me walking in. It may not sound like much, but at that point, I was thinking about my children.
When I appeared before the judge, I was not shown the indictment because I didn’t have lawyers. I pleaded not guilty without even seeing the charges, because I assumed that the charges were about collusion, and I knew of no collusion. The court appointed me a public defender, which, ironically, was the best thing that happened to me that day. I would have kept him, but I didn’t qualify for public defense because of my income.
But when I finally laid eyes on the indictment, my jaw literally dropped. There was nothing about collusion. Nothing at all.
It was all about Paul. Lots of it.
According to Quartz.com, a business news organization that targets high-income readers:
“Charges detailed in a 31-page indictment also include ‘conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA [Foreign Agent Registration Act] statements, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts,’ according to a statement from the special prosecutor’s office.
Between ‘at least 2006 and 2015, Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents of the government of Ukraine,’ the indictment says, and of a Ukraine political party led by former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych. The pair was paid ‘tens of millions of dollars,’ then hid those payments from US authorities by laundering them through US and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts. They lied to their tax preparers, to US tax authorities, and to the Department of Justice when asked about these accounts, the indictment also claims.
Here is a summary of the twelve counts against Manafort and Gates:
Count One: Conspiracy against the US.
The two, ‘together with others… knowingly and intentionally conspired to defraud the US by impeding, impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful functions’ of the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury.
Count Two: Conspiracy to launder money.
The two ‘knowingly and intentionally’ transferred money to and through the United States, with the ‘intent to promote the carrying on of specified unlawful activity.’
Counts Three through Six: Paul Manafort failed to report his foreign bank accounts with the US Treasury from 2011 through 2014.
Counts Seven through Nine: Richard Gates failed to report his foreign bank accounts with the US Treasury from 2011 through 2013.
Count 10: Unregistered agent of a FARA (Foreign Agent Registration Act) principal.
‘Both Gates and Manafort failed to register as lobbyists of a foreign agent, as required under the Foreign Agent Registration Act first passed in 1938,’ the indictment says.
Count 11: False and misleading FARA statements.
‘Both Manafort and Gates lied in statements made to the Attorney General about lobbying for foreign agents,’ the indictment says. These include false statements about ‘meeting or conducting outreach to US government officials’ and false claims that their work on behalf of Yanukovych’s party did not include ‘meeting or outreach in the US.’
The two also claimed that they could not turn over email correspondence linked to a partnership they formed, because it ‘does not retain communications beyond 30 days.’
Count 12: False and misleading statements.
The two lied repeatedly to the DOJ [Department of Justice], the count says, in statements submitted in November 2016 and February 2017. In addition, they also had other people ‘falsify, conceal, and cover up, by a scheme and device a material fact,’ make ‘false, fictitious and fraudulent statements,’ and use ‘false writing’ and documents.”
After my five-million-dollar bond was posted, I was ready to get back home to Richmond, to normalcy. How naive that thought seems to me now. As if there was ever a way to return to what was before.
Even though we live on a private street, Brooks had told me there was media swarming the front of the house. I braced myself to face them, but fortunately, by the time I got back, the neighbors had called the police and gotten the cameras kicked out. Most of our neighbors were very supportive and saddened by what happened to us. It is a mostly Republican neighborhood, a quiet one. Some brought us meals and others came to see what we needed. I was truly touched by all the kind gestures. I would have broken down and wept, but I had to keep up the front that I had everything under control, even though inside I was beginning to feel a profound sense of violation, of outrage.
The red leaves were already falling from the trees and it was chilly, but pleasant. I usually love this beautiful scenery, but this time I just stared blankly before heading inside. I attended to the kids. It was strange, trying to behave as usual.
Daddy’s home. That simple truth emphasized the unknown and made it all the more surreal. Daddy wasn’t usually home at this time of the day. Would I be able to be home for them at all in the near future?
I sat down. I was filled with anger. I felt betrayed. Life had been moving so quickly there’d never been time to reflect. It was as if I were watching the last couple decades of my life on a film reel: the strange, fascinating, and hectic days I spent with Donald Trump, the fiascoes and pitfalls, my start with Paul Manafort and my early career. All of the twists and turns that brought me here.
Someone asked me recently about my childhood. This person, who met me later in life, was curious, in light of the headlines, how my upbringing positioned me to be a key player in domestic and international events. But my background is quite normal, so far away from what someone influenced by media reports might imagine.
I was born at Fort Lee military base in Virginia. My dad was a career military officer. I am the eldest of three boys. My middle brother is two years younger and my youngest brother is ten years younger than me. My mother was a nurse, but as an officer’s wife, she quit working when we were born. After we went to school, she went back to work in an emergency room. We moved about every three years. In the United States, two of my favorite places were Kentucky and North Carolina.
Later on, we moved to Nuremberg, Germany. On the one hand, it was difficult for me and my brothers. I felt what so many army brats feel: the vicious cycle of impermanence, of castles on sand. I started life over every few years. Left behind friendships, built new ones, then left those behind. For a child, this can be exhausting, and no doubt, it shaped my personality.
But there were benefits to the constant waves of change. My eyes were opened to the big world out there. Many Americans don’t get the opportunity to experience life in other countries. When we lived in Germany, we took vacations in Holland. It got me interested in foreign countries, and later on, in foreign policy.
I also developed more European hobbies, like playing soccer for a German team. I was quite good at that, and I follow soccer to this day. In Germany I attended an American school. Most kids, like me, were from American families working overseas. I didn’t know another kind of childhood existed. Life on a military base was what I had known. All houses looked alike. All fathers served. That was my world.
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