White House downplays Manafort, takes aim at Clintons

White House downplays Manafort, takes aim at Clintons
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The White House on Monday said it had no plans to dismiss special counsel Robert Mueller after he delivered the first indictments in his investigation of Russia’s meddling in last year’s election that has shadowed the first year of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJoint Chiefs chairman denies report that US is planning to keep 1K troops in Syria Kansas Department of Transportation calls Trump 'delusional communist' on Twitter Trump has privately voiced skepticism about driverless cars: report MORE’s presidency.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the charges brought against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and two other ex-aides have “nothing to do with the president,” adding that most of the alleged crimes took place before the 2016 campaign.

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Echoing the president, Huckabee also deflected attention to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP lawmaker defends Chelsea Clinton after confrontation over New Zealand attacks Klobuchar: Race, gender should not be litmus tests for 2020 Dem nominee Kirsten Gillibrand officially announces White House run MORE’s losing campaign and Democrats’ funding of opposition research that produced a dossier of explosive accusations about Trump’s ties to Moscow, arguing that was where the focus should be.

“The real collusion scandal, as we've said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign,” Sanders said.

While it hit Clinton, the White House did not criticize Mueller, even as a few voices on the right wing, including the Wall Street Journal editorial board, have called for him to be fired or resign over the Trump dossier.

Sanders sought to downplay the possibility that Trump will take any drastic measures in order to end the special counsel investigation, though she also declined to rule them out.

“There is no intention or plan to make any changes in regards to the special counsel,” Sanders said when asked if Trump is considering firing Mueller.

She stopped short of taking presidential pardons for Manafort and Richard Gates, a second Trump official indicted on Monday, off the table, saying, “I think we should let the process play through before we start looking at those steps.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill voiced heightened concerns Monday that Trump will ax Mueller, who was tapped to lead the Russia probe after the president fired James Comey as FBI director.

“The president must not under any circumstances in any way interfere with the special counsel's work. If he does, Congress must respond swiftly, unequivocally and in a bipartisan way to ensure that the investigation continues," Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerWhy we need to build gateway now Campaign to draft Democratic challenger to McConnell starts raising funds Schumer congratulates J. Lo and A-Rod, but says 'I'm never officiating a wedding again' MORE (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyTop Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview Gowdy calls congressional hearings like Cohen's 'utterly useless' The family secret Bruce Ohr told Rod Rosenstein about Russia case MORE (S.C.), an influential House Republican, said Sunday that colleagues should curb their criticism of the special counsel.

 

“I would encourage my Republican friends, give the guy a chance to do his job,” he said Sunday on Fox News. “The result will be known by the facts, by what he uncovers.”

Gowdy also criticized leaks related to the indictments, an increasing concern for Republicans. News that an indictment was coming on Monday leaked out to CNN on Friday.

Some Republicans fear the charges could stymie this week’s planned rollout of their long-awaited tax plan and overshadow Trump’s first presidential visit to Asia — not to mention the existential concerns hanging over the Trump administration.

For now, White House allies are taking solace in the fact that the indictment of Manafort and Gates stemmed from their work on behalf of a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine — and not the Trump campaign.

Sanders’s press briefing was dominated by questions about the Manafort and Gates indictments, as well as a guilty plea from 30-year-old former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who admitted to making false statements to the FBI about his talks with Russians. It is possible that Papadopoulos could offer testimony to investigators that could be used against other campaign officials.

Sanders downplayed Papadopoulos’s role on the campaign, calling him a “volunteer” who served on an advisory committee that met just one time.

The aide said he was in touch with a Russian academic in April 2016 who promised “dirt” on Clinton based on the contents of her emails, months before the Russian hack of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails became public.

Sanders did not say when Trump first became aware of the emails.

Papadopoulos also tried to arrange a meeting between campaign officials and Kremlin representatives.

A high-ranking campaign official encouraged Papadopoulos to meet with the academic in Russia to find out more “if feasible,” according to a court document unsealed Monday.

But Sanders appeared to contradict that claim, saying “any actions that he took would have been on his own.”

When pressed on the conversation detailed in the court document, Sanders replied that she was “not aware of that conversation, so I can't speak to that.”

Trump and his advisers have repeatedly attempted to distance the president from Manafort, who led his campaign between May and August 2016.

Media outlets have reported on allegations of Manafort’s corrupt financial practices for well over a year, raising questions about Trump’s decision to hire him.

In his only public response to the charges, Trump tweeted earlier Monday they were the result of actions taken “years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign.”

But Monday’s indictments have undercut that claim. Court documents said Manafort was charged for actions that began around 2006 and continued through the 2016 campaign.

Sanders said Trump’s “last known conversion” with Manafort happened in February.

She declined to say if Trump regretted choosing him to lead his campaign.