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Special Counsel Robert Mueller Secures Another Guilty Plea


There is another guilty plea in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. This time it's a lawyer who worked with former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates. That lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan, has acknowledged that he lied to the FBI last year. He's the 19th person charged by the special counsel and the fourth to plead guilty.

Joining us to talk more about the case is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: This lawyer is not exactly a household name. Tell us who he is and what he's accused of doing.

JOHNSON: Sure. He's based in London. His name is Alex van der Zwaan. He's a Russian speaker, a Dutch citizen, only 33 years old. And he worked on a report in 2012 for the pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Paul Manafort and Rick Gates lobbied for that pro-Russian government, and prosecutors say this lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan, lied to the FBI in 2017 and did not cough up emails.

He's been in the U.S. ever since November. And when he's sentenced in - this spring, he faces zero to six months in prison for this single felony charge. His wife is pregnant, and he wants to get home in time for the baby to be born in London in August. We'll see if that happen.

SHAPIRO: There are so many facets to this investigation. How does today's guilty plea fit into the larger picture?

JOHNSON: You know, it's not clear if this is more about the walls closing in on Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman who's already been charged with conspiracy and money laundering for his lobbying work, or whether this guilty plea today signals something bigger involving Russia or people inside the U.S.

Not sure how relevant this is, but the lawyer who pleaded today, Alex van der Zwaan, is the son-in-law of a man who founded a Russian bank, Alfa-Bank, and the court documents in his case really only mention Rick Gates, Paul Manafort's business partner, and a person who worked with them labeled as person A in the court filings.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned Rick Gates. You've talked about how he might be the next person to plead guilty. What's the latest there?

JOHNSON: Here's what we know. Rick Gates has a young family - four children and very little money to spare. The feeling is he can't afford to fight these charges anymore. He's been meeting quietly with prosecutors, meeting with a new defense lawyer and perhaps preparing to plead guilty maybe as early as this week, which would really turn up the heat on Paul Manafort, his former business partner, and leave Manafort as the last man standing in this case. Prosecutors desperately want to know what Paul Manafort knows. The question is whether Manafort will play ball and consider turning state's evidence.

SHAPIRO: Carrie, it feels like there are constantly new developments in this case. Just on Friday we were talking about Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russians for carrying out information warfare during the 2016 campaign. Do you have any sign of where he's going next?

JOHNSON: I wish I did.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: He's not telling me. He's not telling me. But we have some clues. We know that they're building a bigger case against Paul Manafort, possibly adding tax charges against him. And there's a lot more that's of interest to investigators, too. There's been no charges, at least not yet, over the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's former campaign chairman - hacking of their emails.

The U.S. government we know did charge Chinese and Russian nationals with behavior like that in the past, and we know there have also been interviews but no public charges yet against anyone involved in the Trump campaign data operations. Then of course, Ari, we've been talking a lot about obstruction of justice - no charges there yet. That investigation continues. And finally, we've been waiting to see whether Mueller - special counsel Robert Mueller will actually sit down with President Trump himself. Stay tuned on that score, too.

SHAPIRO: So much to follow. I'm glad you're tracking it, Carrie. Thanks.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.