NEWARK, NEW JERSEY – A month before the 2016 presidential election, a campaign aide to Donald Trump directly communicated with a man he knew was a onetime Russian spy, according to a court filing by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Rick Gates, the campaign aide, told an attorney for a U.S. law firm that a Russian national they worked with in Ukraine was a former military intelligence officer, according to the filing late Tuesday in Washington federal court.
Both Gates and the lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan, have pleaded guilty as part of Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election. Gates spent a decade working for Paul Manafort, the indicted former Trump campaign chairman, as a political consultant in Ukraine.
The filing identifies the ex-spy only as Person A. The description of him by prosecutors as a person living in Moscow and Kiev who worked with Manafort and Gates in Ukraine matches that of Konstantin Kilimnik, their former colleague. Kilimnik has declined comment on whether he was Person A.
FBI agents, working with Mueller’s office, “assess that Person A has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016,” according to the filing.
Van der Zwaan typically communicated with Person A, a native Russian speaker, in Russian over encrypted applications, such as WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram, according to the sentencing memo by defense lawyers.
Manafort, 68, was a top Republican strategist who worked for controversial foreign politicians for decades. He faces two indictments charging him with tax and bank fraud, money laundering, and failing to register as a lobbyist for work he did in Ukraine with Gates and Kilimnik.
Mueller’s prosecutors have introduced evidence that Manafort emailed Kilimnik as recently as Nov. 29, about changes to an editorial that ran in an English-language Ukrainian newspaper about his case.
Van der Zwaan, a Dutch citizen, is a former associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a prominent U.S.-based law firm. He helped produce a report that Skadden wrote in 2012 that largely defended the prosecution and conviction of the country’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
The report defied the view held by the U.S. and the European Union that the case against her was politically motivated. At the time, Manafort and Gates were coordinating an extensive lobbying campaign in the U.S. to benefit then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a rival to Tymoshenko, according to prosecutors. Gates and Manafort secretly funneled $4 million through offshore accounts to pay for the report, prosecutors said.
Van der Zwaan first talked to Mueller’s prosecutors and the FBI just days after Manafort and Gates were indicted on Oct 27. He admitted lying about his communications with Gates and Person A, and about his failure to produce an email exchange with Person A.
Prosecutors said he had a series of calls with Gates, Person A and a senior Skadden partner in September and October 2016, regarding “potential criminal charges in Ukraine about the Tymoshenko report and how the firm was compensated for its work,” according to the filing. Van der Zwaan had recorded those calls, but in his first meeting with investigators, represented by a Skadden partner, he failed to tell investigators about the recordings, according to the filings.
“Focused on preserving his career at Skadden, and fearful that truthful answers could lead to discovery of the recordings (and in particular, the discovery that he had recorded a Skadden partner), Alex made a terrible decision: he decided to cut off the inquiry at its inception by lying about the September 2016 conversations with Gates and Person A,” according to the defense filing.
He also failed to flag personal emails from his Skadden account, including ones showing that in 2012 and 2013, he “explored opportunities to leave Skadden to work directly for Gates and Manafort,” according to the filing.
Within days, van der Zwaan decided to come clean. He handed over notes and the recordings, which gave prosecutors “powerful evidence that irrefutably proved that he had made false statements.” In a second meeting with prosecutors, he admitted his lies.
Van der Zwaan, who was fired by Skadden, is hoping that he can join his pregnant wife in Europe for the expected birth of their son in August, his lawyers said. His wife, Eva, is married to a Russian oligarch, German Khan.
The case is U.S. v. van der Zwaan, 18-cr-00031, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).