On Monday, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former business associate Rick Gates became the first people told to surrender to federal authorities as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign for possible collusion with Russia.
According to the Department of Justice, Manafort and Gates have been charged with 12 counts: conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principle, false and misleading FARA statements, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.
Manafort ran the Trump campaign from April to August of 2016 — a stretch that included the Republican National Convention. Manafort played a key role in the selection of Mike Pence as Trump’s running mate. Even after he left the campaign amid reports Ukrainian authorities were investigating him for allegedly receiving $12.7 million in illegal payments from Ukraine’s former pro-Russia ruling party, Manafort stayed in contact with top Trump officials — days before the inauguration, he reportedly got in touch with Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and advised him about how to push back on alleged inaccuracies in the so-called Steele dossier exploring the campaign’s ties with Russia. In late November, The Daily Beast reported that Manafort was advising Trump on cabinet appointments.
Manafort wasn’t a bit player in the campaign. At the time of his scandal-driven departure from the campaign, prominent Trump surrogates applauded Manafort for his extensive involvement.
.@newtgingrich: "Nobody should underestimate how much Paul Manafort did to really help get this [Trump] campaign to where it is right now."
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) August 20, 2016
Yet days after then-FBI director James Comey first publicly disclosed that the Trump campaign’s ties with Russian officials were under investigation, the White House tried to distance itself from Manafort.
During a press briefing, a reporter asked then-Press Secretary Sean 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 first confirmed 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.
“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!”
During a press conference the month before that news briefing, President Trump employed a similar distancing tactic, describing Manafort as only working on the campaign “for a short period of time.”
Responding to a question about whether Manafort was in touch with Russian officials during the campaign, Trump said, “You know what? He said no. I could only tell you what he — now he was replaced long before the election. You know that, right?”
Trump added: “He was replaced long before the election. When all of this stuff started coming out, it came out during the election. But Paul Manafort, who’s a good man also by the way, Paul Manfort was replaced long before the election took place. He was only there for a short period of time.”
Manafort himself struggled to explain the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russians. During a CBS interview conducted while he was campaign manager, Manafort stammered while trying to answer question about whether Trump has “financial relationships with Russian oligarchs.”
Watch Paul Manafort, chairman of Trump's presidential campaign, sound VERY unconvincing, re: Jeff Sessions and Russia. pic.twitter.com/5sc3FBMa8H
— #AllofUs (@TimeForAllofUs) March 2, 2017
In March, the Associated Press broke news that Manafort “secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics.”
The AP, citing “interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP,” reports that news of Manafort’s secret work on behalf of Putin “appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.”
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) March 22, 2017
When Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused Russian hackers of leaking Democratic National Committee emails just before the Democratic National Convention to help Trump — an allegation that has since been affirmed by the US intelligence community — Manafort went on CNN and said any conversation about links between the Putin regime and Trump, including his personal role, was “crazy.”
On Monday, a White House spokesman told CNN they “may not have a response at all” to news of Manafort’s indictment. Another “source close to the White House” told CNN that Trump will take the news that his former campaign chairman has been indicted “on its face” because “it has nothing to do with him.”