Special counsel Robert Mueller has charged a lawyer with allegedly lying to investigators about covering up his discussions about Ukraine with former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates and another person in September 2016, while the Trump campaign operation was in full swing.
The filing is further evidence that Mueller's investigators have ratcheted the pressure on Gates as he negotiates a plea deal and that they continue to look into the work of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Gates while they worked for Russian-allied clients and the Trump campaign.
Alex Van Der Zwaan, who is expected to plead guilty Tuesday afternoon, is also accused of lying about the failure to turn over an email communication to the special counsel's office.
He would become the fourth guilty plea in the Mueller investigation after Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos and former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators last year, and an online supplier of fake usernames pleaded guilty to identity fraud last week. Mueller has also indicted 13 Russians for their work to influence the 2016 presidential election through online social media.
Van Der Zwaan's conversation with the special counsel's office in which he allegedly lied happened three days after Manafort and Gates were charged with crimes related to their work for Ukrainian politicians and other business. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Late last year, prosecutors questioned Van Der Zwaan on his work with international law firm Skadden Arps. Manafort arranged for the law firm to help the Ukrainian Minister of Justice in 2012 report on the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister opposed to Manafort's clients.
Tymoshenko is one of the top political rivals of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian sympathizer who used Manafort and Gates as political consultants for more than a decade. After Yanukovych narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election, she was jailed on charges of corruption that were seen by many as being politically motivated. Skadden produced a report that said the process was legal. She was freed after Yanukovych's ouster in 2014.
The prosecutors' criminal charge Tuesday explains how Van Der Zwaan spoke with Gates and an unnamed person in September 2016 about the Ukrainian report and recorded the calls. At the time, Gates was still working with the Trump campaign.
The charging document also says he claimed his last interaction with Gates was an "innocuous text message" in August 2016. He also deleted and then failed to produce emails he exchanged with an unnamed person in September 2016.
Around that time, Manafort was in the spotlight for the work he and Gates did in Ukraine. The New York Times reported that secret documents uncovered in Ukraine listed millions of dollars in illegal payments meant for Manafort, and CNN reported that Manafort's lobbying firm was under scrutiny by the FBI and Justice Department. Days after these reports in mid-August 2016, Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign.
There's no indication from the document that Van Der Zwaan was in touch with Gates about the political adviser's work in the election, though the charging document is the first evidence that prosecutors have sought -- and potentially even received emails and recorded phone calls related to -- Gates' interactions while he worked for Donald Trump. The separate charges Gates faces in federal court involve activities related to his Ukrainian work with Manafort in years prior to their Trump campaign work.
Van Der Zwaan has a plea hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at US District Court in Washington, DC.
Skadden Arps said in a statement Tuesday that the firm terminated Van Der Zwaan's employment last year and is cooperating with authorities. Van Der Zwaan was based in London for the firm.
He is the son-in-law of Russian billionaire German Khan, who is one of the most prominent businessmen in Russia. Khan co-founded Alfa Group, a large financial conglomerate, and was recently named in the Treasury Department's list of Russian oligarchs. CNN reported last year that the FBI examined whether there was a computer server connection during the 2016 presidential campaign between Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization, though there isn't any indication that Van Der Zwaan is connected to that matter.
Asked about the charge, White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah told Fox News that the development is unrelated to the President's actions and "only reinforces our point when it comes to the special counsel's investigation ... there is no evidence of collusion because none existed."
Gates close to plea deal
Gates, meanwhile, has had attorneys working on a plea deal with Mueller's office for more than a month, indicating he's poised to cooperate in the investigation, sources familiar with the case told CNN last week. But no deal has materialized as of Tuesday morning.
He has already spoken to Mueller's team about his case multiple times, CNN first reported last week. His cooperation could be another building block for Mueller in a possible case against Trump or key members of his team.
It would also increase the pressure to cooperate on Manafort, who has pleaded not guilty to Mueller's indictment and is preparing for a trial on alleged financial crimes unrelated to the campaign. Gates pleaded not guilty on October 30 alongside Manafort.
On Friday night, Mueller's office indicated it had unearthed even more evidence of alleged crimes committed by Manafort, related to bank fraud and mortgages on his homes. No charges have been filed related to those accusations as of Tuesday morning.