This is the first time a senior Trump campaign official has confessed to criminal activity on the stand.
Trump's former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates took the stand in federal court Monday and testified that he knowingly committed crimes alongside and under the direction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Gates, who reached a plea deal after being indicted on multiple charges by special counsel Robert Mueller in October, told the court Monday that he helped Manafort cheat on his tax returns and hide 15 foreign bank accounts from the government, among other crimes.
He also testified that both he and Manafort knew what they were doing was illegal, and that some of the crimes were committed "at Mr. Manafort's direction."
Gates, a longtime business associate of Manafort's, is considered a key witness in this week's criminal trial in Alexandria, VA, where Manafort is facing 18 separate counts of bank and tax fraud charges.
In addition to the charges he's facing in Virginia, Manafort is also awaiting trial in Washington, D.C., where he's charged with crimes including conspiracy to defraud the United States, making false statements related to the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and attempted witness tampering.
Though Gates previously pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy against the United States and lying to the FBI, his testimony on Monday marks the first time a Trump campaign aide has publicly admitted to committing crimes with another Trump campaign official.
It's also the first time a Trump campaign official has publicly confessed to being a criminal.
Manafort's trial is considered the first major court test for special counsel Mueller. Although the trial doesn't directly involve Manafort's work for the Trump campaign, it is widely believed that Mueller is seeking to pressure Manafort into flipping on Trump, as he has done with several other top campaign aides.
The judge presiding over the case has stated publicly that Manafort "faces the very real possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison," given "the apparent weight of the evidence against him." Hence, providing information to Mueller may be the only way to avoid a life sentence.
Mueller has also confirmed that he is investigating Manafort as part of a wide-ranging probe into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, and much of Manafort's alleged criminal activity involves his work for pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine.
Manafort’s role in the campaign was to help Trump secure the nomination and to run the Republican National Convention, where Trump accepted the GOP's nomination for the presidency.
It was during this time that the Trump campaign reportedly advocated for a change to the Republican platform that called for weakening the language with regards to providing military support for Ukraine. This was a change that the GOP did not support, but which the Trump campaign — and Russia — were reportedly adamant about making.
So although the evidence presented in court during Manafort's trial will not directly mention the Trump campaign, the outcome of the case could very well have major implications for the future of Trump's presidency.
That may explain why Trump is reportedly on edge about Manafort's case — and why he has been behaving even more erratically than usual since the trial kicked off last week.
As the trial moved into its second day, Trump made his most direct demand yet to shut down the Russia probe, calling the investigation a "terrible situation" and saying Attorney General Jeff Sessions "should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further."
With the way things are going, the Manafort trial may end up delivering the strongest evidence yet of obstruction — notwithstanding what evidence it may bring in terms of collusion.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.