The deputy manager of US President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign pulled back the curtain Tuesday on the campaign's keen interest in the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks and suggested that Trump himself had more knowledge of the matter than the president has previously claimed.
Testifying at the trial of Roger Stone - a Trump friend accused of lying about his own WikiLeaks-related dealings - Rick Gates said he overheard a phone call in which Stone seemed to make the president aware of a planned WikiLeaks release. Gates and other witnesses testified that Stone posited himself as something of an intermediary between WikiLeaks and the campaign, with access to insider information.
Gates said his boss, Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, had told him that Trump would be kept updated on WikiLeaks's plans to release Democratic campaign emails - which authorities concluded were hacked by Russia.
The testimony from the former high-ranking campaign official indicates that Trump's knowledge of WikiLeaks was more advanced than he has previously stated. In written responses last year to questions from special counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russian interference in the campaign, Trump said he did not recall receiving any information about WikiLeaks disclosures in advance, being told that Stone "or anyone associated with my campaign" had discussions with WikiLeaks about future leaks, or ever discussing WikiLeaks with Stone.
Prosecutors and Stone's defense rested their cases Tuesday afternoon, with closing arguments set for 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Gates said in court that he overheard at least one phone call between Trump and Stone in late July 2016 in which he said he thought they probably discussed WikiLeaks plans, saying that he reached that conclusion because after Trump hung up on the call, the then-candidate said "more information would be coming." Gates conceded that he did not hear what Stone said on the call, which he said occurred when he and Trump were being driven from Trump Tower to LaGuardia Airport in New York.
Asked whether anyone else was giving the campaign information about WikiLeaks, Gates testified on Tuesday that "the only person I'm aware of that had information at that time was Mr. Stone."
At trial, prosecutors are seeking to prove that Stone lied and sought to obstruct justice, but in pursuing that case, testimony during the past week has revealed a raft of information about the campaign's attention to WikiLeaks.
After Gates's appearance, the government rested its case. Stone's attorneys indicated that they do not plan to call witnesses, but would introduce various pieces of evidence, including audio of his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.
Stone, 67, has pleaded not guilty to lying to Congress about his efforts to learn more about WikiLeaks releases that could harm Hillary Clinton, Trump's 2016 general-election rival, and to tampering with a witness also called by Congress by trying to get him not to contradict Stone's testimony.
Stone's attorneys argued that his testimony was not actually false because he never "successfully" contacted WikiLeaks, and also argued that he did not lie to the committee because he believed WikiLeaks was not relevant to the lawmakers' investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Gates said Manafort asked him to keep abreast of WikiLeaks' plans and to stay in touch with Stone, who started predicting as early as April 2016 that WikiLeaks's disclosures that would harm Clinton, before it was publicly known that hackers had obtained Democratic campaign emails.
Gates said the campaign held "brainstorming sessions," including with spokesman Jason Miller and adviser Stephen Miller, about how it would handle the leaks should they materialize.
"We believed that if information were to come out . . . it would give our campaign a leg up," Gates testified.
Gates, 47, said Manafort asked him "to check with Stone to make sure the information was still real and viable." Manafort, Gates said, claimed that "he would be updating other people on the campaign, including the candidate." And Stone would periodically reach out at critical moments, Gates said.
But Gates said that as time passed and some of Stone's predications proved untrue, he and Manafort grew skeptical. Stone, he said, was also vague - for example, indicating in the spring of 2016 that something was coming but giving "no information on dates or anything of that nature."
Gates said campaign officials were pleased, but "in disbelief" after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange talked in an interview in June 2016 about leaks that could be damaging to Clinton.
"It was, in a way, a gift," Gates said.
Stone's defense team has said that Stone exaggerated his contacts and was misled by friends who also were braggarts and that any misstatements he made to Congress denying he had pursued WikiLeaks information were a result of confusion about what he was being asked.
Stone's defense told jurors when the trial opened that Stone did not lie to the committee when he denied having records of communications relevant to the committee's investigation, because Stone believed Russia's role in hacking the emails released by WikiLeaks was unproven, and that WikiLeaks was outside the scope of the committee's investigation.
On Tuesday, Stone's lawyer played audio clips of his testimony to lawmakers, including one in which then-ranking Intelligence Committee Democrat and now Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asked, "So you have no emails to anyone concerning the allegations of hacked documents or your conversations with the Guccifer 2 or any discussions you have had with third parties about Julian Assange? You have no emails, no texts, no documents whatsoever, any kind of that nature?"
"That is correct. Not to my knowledge. I think we met, again the precise criteria of your [committee's written] request, and we complied," Stone said. "We did an extensive search consistent with the direction of my attorneys, and we found nothing that met the criteria that you asked for."
Gates testified that Stone told him they must speak urgently the day after the June Assange interview and the Democratic National Committee's announcement that it had been hacked by Russia. Stone claimed that "more information would be coming," Gates testified.
Stone also said he needed contact information for Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, Gates testified.
In a conversation in July after the DNC emails were released, Gates testified, Stone told Manafort that "additional information would be coming out down the road." Gates was with Manafort, who had Stone on speakerphone.
"Manafort thought that would be great," Gates testified.
Gates testified that he spoke to Stone again in October, after the email account of Clinton's campaign chairman was hacked, and Stone took credit for predicting that.
Gates said the relationship between Stone and Trump was "somewhat tense" around this time because Stone had been fired from the campaign, "but they had a 30-plus-year relationship" that was still maintained. Stone, he said, also had access to the campaign through Gates and Manafort.
Stone's attorney Bruce Rogow sought to undermine Gates's credibility by going over in detail the financial crimes to which he has pleaded guilty, including tax evasion and embezzlement.
Steve Bannon, who was chief executive of the Trump campaign, told the federal jury in Washington last week that Stone was considered an "access point" to WikiLeaks, with knowledge about the release of hacked emails damaging to Clinton. But Bannon said that he never asked Stone to contact Assange and that he was not aware of anyone else on the campaign contacting the anti-secrecy group.
Gates has been a cooperating witness in proceedings that grew from Mueller's now-concluded investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. In a court filing Monday, prosecutors asked that a judge set sentencing for Gates in mid-December, a sign that his cooperation may be drawing to a close after his 2018 plea, in one of the Mueller investigation's spinoffs, to conspiracy and lying to the FBI about his work for a political party in Ukraine about six years earlier.
Gates worked with the Trump campaign until Election Day and joined the inaugural committee.
Manafort was sentenced earlier this year to a a 7 1/2 year prison sentence on federal convictions in two cases for bank and tax fraud and for illegally lobbying in Ukraine and hiding the proceeds overseas, then encouraging witnesses to lie on his behalf,
The central finding of Mueller's investigation is that Moscow had a primary role in sweeping and systemic cyberinterference in the 2016 campaign, including stealing and releasing emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign chairman.
On a timeline shown on the first day of trial, former FBI agent Michelle Taylor highlighted calls on the phones of Gates, Trump and Stone in late July 2016. The calls - whose content is not known to investigators, Taylor said - came the same week Stone emailed Manafort that he had an idea to "save Trump's a---" and as Stone allegedly was emailing an acquaintance for help with approaching Assange to ask about any upcoming WikiLeaks dumps.
Manafort was convicted last year on unrelated financial crimes and is in prison.
The witness Stone is accused of trying to intimidate - radio host and comedian Randy Credico - testified for two days last week about his conversations with Stone regarding WikiLeaks and the pressure his old friend put on him to stonewall the House Intelligence Committee's Russia inquiry. Stone, Credico testified, made him his "patsy" by threatening his reputation and that of a close friend.
Ultimately, Credico refused to testify before Congress, invoking his Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.
Stone's lies and Credico's silence, Taylor testified in the trial before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, kept the House committee from being able to contradict Stone's claim that he had no records of communications with WikiLeaks.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)