Washington’s hottest federal case, United States v. Paul Manafort, has everything: ostrich-leather jackets, fine imported rugs, Cypriot shell corporations,infidelities in far-flung locales, double-crosses, triple-crosses, $20 million in allegedly ill-gotten loans and more than $65 million dumped in offshore accounts over four years.
But perhaps the most enigmatic fixture is Rick Gates, the prosecution’s star witness, a Manafort protégé who took a plea deal to implicate his former boss in a bevy of financial crimes in 2½-days of testimony this past week. In his time on the stand, Gates stressed that he was not the conspicuous consumer of House of Bijan attire and silk rugs that Manafort was. Then he admitted to embezzling money for his mentor, embezzling money from his mentor, using the proceeds to keep a London flat for a romantic liaison with a woman who wasn’t his wife and stealing from other employers over the years. (He was not, however, compelled to answer a defense attorney’s question that suggested there were at least three other romantic affairs Gates had not disclosed.)
Conservatives, long leery of Manafort precisely because he flaunted his love of foreign clients and capital — and wary of the Manafort investigation’s implications for President Donald Trump in the special counsel’s Russia probe — have vacillated between avoiding discussion of the case, as GOP members of Congress have done, and tossing the longtime GOP politico under a large bus: Before the prosecution, Trump himself tweeted that Manafort was a bit player in his campaign and that the trial would cover allegations about crimes that occurred “years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.” (Both of the president’s assertions were false.)
But since Manafort’s incarceration and trial, in which the tax evasion and fraud charges against him have been backed by reams of evidence, Trump has seemingly embraced his former campaign chairman and painted the prosecution as a persecution; the president asserted (again, on Twitter) that Manafort, a “Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement,” was being treated worse by his own government than Al Capone.
That narrative dovetails nicely with defense attorneys’ shredding of Gates, a man who seemingly has never met an id impulse he did not indulge. What kind of a man, critics ask, steals from his boss and then flips against him in a court case? Has he no moral compass? How can such a prolific, admitted cad and criminal — he noted this past week that, without immunity, he might face six years in prison — be trusted to tell the truth in court, especially when his cooperation is transactional?
These questions, of course, are asked in bad faith, to defend Manafort and, by extension, Trump — men whose marital infidelities, financial vicissitudes and coziness with dictators are part of a long public record. But it is fair to ask how a clearly intelligent, capable, even affable man like Gates came to live the life of a Scorsese mob-film narrator.
The short answer is that he went to Washington, not to run for office, and not to advise on policies that would benefit his 320 million countrymen. He went to make money. And you make money by notching wins for wealthy people who want access to power — as quietly and easily as possible.
We are conditioned to think of this atmosphere as a “swamp,” but that belies its depth, darkness and scale: It is an ocean floor teeming with hungry, lithe predators. In the years since the Panama Papers leaks, we’ve learned much about the ways — legal and not — in which banks and certain governments happily facilitate large transfers of wealth from corrupt actors to lobbyists in exchange for deference from federal officials that Joe Citizen cannot get. We know why, after retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s admission that he concealed foreign lobbying proceeds, after Gates’ cooperation with authorities and after Manafort’s indictment, the number of people registering with the U.S. government as lobbyists for foreign entities has surged. This murky sea’s bottom-dwellers are worried about getting caught in a Justice Department net.