On Monday morning, FBI Director James Comey made it official — the Trump campaign’s ties with Russian officials are under investigation.
A few hours later, Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to distance Trump from two members of his inner circle who lost their jobs after their close ties with Russia came to light — former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
During his press conference, a reporter asked Spicer, “Now that we know that there is an ongoing investigation by the FBI, does the president stand by his comments that he’s not aware of any contacts that his campaign associates had with Russia during the election?”
Spicer replied that Trump does stand by the claims he, Vice President Mike Pence, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus have all made, insisting that no Trump campaign officials were in contact with Russian operatives. But he then hedged his bets by suggesting that even if some campaign officials were in touch with Russian officials, they weren’t major players anyway.
“Even General Flynn was a volunteer of the campaign, and then obviously there’s been this discussion of Paul Manafort who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time,” Spicer said.
Spicer: Former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort played a "very limited" role for a "very limited period of time." https://t.co/q3gqLwbrqb
— CNN (@CNN) March 20, 2017
Spicer’s comment prompted ABC’s Jon Karl to blurt out, “But he’s the chairman of the campaign!” Indeed, Manafort was chairman of Trump’s campaign for key stretch last summer surrounding the Republican National Convention — a fact acknowledged at the time by Spicer himself.
— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) July 17, 2016
Manafort left the Trump campaign in an official capacity in August amid reports Ukrainian authorities were investigating him for allegedly receiving $12.7 million in illegal payments from Ukraine’s former pro-Russia ruling party. That same month, another Trump confidante, Roger Stone, was exchanging direct messages on Twitter with Guccifer 2.0, an account the US intelligence community says was used as a front for hackers directed by the Russian government.
Flynn, meanwhile, was Trump’s most prominent military adviser during the campaign from February 2016 onward. Two months before he joined the campaign, Flynn was paid $33,750 to travel to Moscow for an event commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the Russia state-funded network RT, an outlet described in the unclassified intelligence report about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.” During his remarks, Flynn blasted President Obama and said he didn’t know whether the 2013 sarin gas attack in Syria widely thought to have been the responsibility of the Russia-backed Assad regime was a “false flag.”
Flynn gave a rousing speech on Trump’s behalf at the RNC, and after Trump’s victory was named national security adviser — a job he lost last month after it became clear he lied about communicating with the Russian ambassador about sanctions before inauguration day. The New York Times has reported that Flynn and the Russian ambassador were also in contact during the campaign.
Spicer’s attempt to downplay Manafort’s role comes two weeks after former Trump campaign director Corey Lewandowski did the same thing on Fox News.
— Yashar Ali (@yashar) March 20, 2017
In addition to Manafort and Flynn, we know two other Trump campaign officials had contact with Russian officials — former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and former Trump national security policy aide J.D. Gordon. Page’s meeting last summer with high-ranking Russian officials — a meeting where “the possible lifting of economic sanctions” was reportedly discussed, as it was during Flynn’s pre-inauguration contacts with the Russian ambassador — triggered a federal investigation. Gordon reportedly had a role in changing the Republican Party’s platform in a manner favorable to Russia.
During his news conference on Monday, Spicer referred to Stone and Page as merely “hangers-on around the campaign.”
After Spicer’s news conference, House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) echoed Spicer’s downplaying of Manafort’s role in the campaign, saying he “for a short time… worked on the convention,” according to the Washington Post. As for Page and Stone, Nunes claimed to have never heard of them.
Nunes just told me he's never heard of Carter Page or Roger Stone. And he's in charge of the investigation?
— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) March 20, 2017
Nunes, who has been enlisted by the Trump administration to knock down unflattering stories about Trump, is currently overseeing the House investigation into Trump’s Russia ties.