White House distances Trump from Manafort

The White House on Wednesday rushed to distance itself from President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, saying Trump did not know of his secret work for a Russian oligarch.

“The president was not aware of Paul’s clients from the last decade,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters.

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Spicer was responding to a bombshell Associated Press report revealing that Manafort signed a multimillion-dollar contract beginning in 2006 with Oleg Deripaska, a close associate of Vladimir Putin, to help advance the Russian leader’s interests around the world.

The story fueled the growing controversy over the Trump team’s ties to Russia, which was rekindled Monday when FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed the bureau is investigating whether Trump associates coordinated with Moscow during the 2016 presidential election.

Trump officials initially declined to comment on the Manafort story, saying they wouldn’t speak about a non-White House employee. But facing a barrage of questions during his daily briefing, Spicer sought to minimize the nature of Manafort’s work as well as his standing in Trump’s orbit.

Spicer said the AP report did not reference any action by the president, the White House or any administration official, while adding there is no indication Manafort did “anything improper” by signing an agreement with Deripaska.

Spicer at times became flustered at the line of questioning, saying it was “insane” for Trump to be aware of Manafort’s business arrangements.

“What else don’t we know? I mean, where he went to school, what grades he got, who he played with in the sandbox?”

He also stressed that Manafort was “hired to oversee the campaign’s delegate operation” and spent “just under five months” on the Trump campaign.

But the White House’s efforts to cast Manafort as a bit player have often strained credulity. 

Spicer on Monday described the former campaign chairman as someone “who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.” He also said Manafort was hired in June, even though he was brought on board in March.

That comment generated pushback even from allies of the president.

“I’ve know Paul a long time. I have a lot of respect for him. I worked very closely with him. I don’t think we can describe Paul’s role as limited,” financier Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on Trump’s transition team, said on CNN.

Spicer backtracked on Wednesday. “Clearly, I should have been more precise with respect to Paul’s role,” he said. 

Manafort took over as de facto campaign manager after Trump fired Corey Lewandowski from the job in June. “Paul’s in charge,” Spicer, who was then communications director of the Republican National Committee, told Reuters at the time.

The longtime GOP operative was eventually dismissed from the campaign in August amid a swirling controversy around his work for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. Manafort is facing allegations that he was paid millions of dollars as part of the arrangement. 

But even after his dismissal, Manafort was not entirely banished from Trump’s orbit.

Manafort has said privately that he still speaks to the president by phone, according to the AP. His former deputy, Rick Gates, now leads a pro-Trump outside group called America First Policies.

The new revelation about Manafort’s work for Russia has revived questions about whether Trump properly vetted individuals who worked for his campaign, transition and now his administration.

Many of those individuals have found themselves the center of the controversy over Russia.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned last month after it was revealed that he misled senior officials about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.

Flynn was hired for the top security job even though he informed lawyers on the Trump transition that he intended to register as a foreign agent for work he did on behalf of a businessman aligned with the Turkish government.

Asked Wednesday if he could say whether there is anyone in the White House working in the interest of a foreign government, Spicer declined to definitively rule it out.

“I can tell you that every form has been filled out,” Spicer said, referring to clearance paperwork needed for national security roles. 

“To sit here and ask me whether I can vouch for, whatever it is, a few hundred people, that have filled out everything, you know, that would be ridiculous,” he said.

With headlines mounting over Trump’s links to Russia, the White House has also worked furiously to change the subject. 

Spicer portrayed the Manafort story as proof of media bias, floating ties between Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates MORE, and Russian interests.

He noted lobbying work done by Tony Podesta, the brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, against Russian sanctions, as well as a deal to sell American uranium deposits to a Russian company, which occurred while Clinton served as secretary of State during the Obama administration.

The spokesman also recited the new assertion from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that members of Trump’s transition team had their communications inadvertently swept up in legal U.S. surveillance. 

In an unusual move, Nunes rushed to the White House Wednesday afternoon to brief Trump. The president later told reporters he felt “somewhat” vindicated by Nunes’s findings, even though they did not corroborate his claim that former President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign.

Trump did not address the Manafort story.