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White House says it’s ‘insane’ to suggest Trump knew campaign chairman worked on pro-Putin project

·White House Correspondent
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  • Paul Manafort
    Paul Manafort
    American political consultant

WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer sought to put additional distance between President Trump and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Yahoo News asked Spicer about an Associated Press report that Manafort crafted a plan to advance Putin’s interests in 2005 for a billionaire client with ties to the Russian president. Spicer stressed that the report did not directly involve Trump or White House staff and noted that it concerned activities from “last decade.”

“Nothing in this morning’s report references any actions by the president, the White House or any Trump administration official. I think that’s got to be clear from the get-go,” Spicer said, adding that “the report is entirely focused on actions that Paul took a decade ago. … He’s a former adviser to the campaign, and the actions that came to light this morning are about a client that he had last decade.”

The Associated Press report, which was written by Jeff Horwitz and Chad Day, detailed how, in 2005, Manafort pitched a plan to billionaire Oleg Deripaska to influence media and politicians in the U.S. and abroad. According to the AP, Manafort wrote a memo saying this strategy would “greatly benefit the Putin Government.” Manafort reportedly signed a $10 million annual contract with Deripaska, a Putin ally, that began in 2006, and he remained involved with the billionaire until “at least 2009.”

The Trump administration has faced extensive scrutiny over possible links to Russia in the wake of a U.S. intelligence community report that concluded Putin’s government intervened in last year’s presidential election to boost Trump’s chances. Yahoo News asked Spicer about comments he made on Monday dismissing Manafort as having had a “limited role” in Trump’s campaign. Manafort was Trump’s campaign chairman, and Yahoo News asked “how spending months as the campaign’s top official is a limited role.”

“I commented on this the other day and, clearly, I should have been more precise with respect to Paul’s role. So let me clarify this,” Spicer said. “Paul was hired to oversee the campaign’s delegate operations. He had played a significant role in the convention and delegate operations of four previous Republican nominees. … To be clear, he got the job done on the delegates. The president won the Republican nomination after months of speculation [about] a potentially contested … convention,” Spicer said.

Manafort was initially hired to work on delegate wrangling, but he became the Trump campaign’s top official following the departure of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski late last June.

“In total, he was involved with the campaign for a total of just under five months,” Spicer said of Manafort. “He was first hired on March 28 to oversee delegate operations. He was made the chief strategist and campaign chairman on May 19, and his relationship with the campaign ended on Aug. 19.”

Manafort is a veteran lobbyist who has represented a wide array of clients, including the dictators Ferdinand Marcos and Mobutu Sese Seko. Spicer pointed out that Manafort had many different business relationships and argued that his lobbying is similar to the work done by the brother of John Podesta, who chaired the campaign of Trump’s Democratic rival in last year’s election, Hillary Clinton.

“To place it in context, Paul represented many foreign clients according to publicly available data, in the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and Europe. His representation of foreign clients is public and is similar to the work of Tony Podesta, a Clinton campaign fundraiser whose brother, John, chaired Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year, not last decade,” Spicer said.

Spicer, who was reading from a script at points in his response, went on to argue that Clinton had far more extensive connections to Russia. Among other things, Spicer cited Clinton’s effort to launch a “reset” in relations between the U.S. and Russia during her time as secretary of state, and speaking fees collected by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Spicer framed this as a double standard.

“So an individual who worked for … the campaign for five months of the president’s two-year-long campaign, who worked with a Russian entity a decade ago, is the subject of rampant media speculation all day long even though the Clintons had much more,” he said.

Spicer also said Trump has no meaningful business ties to Russia. Trump, who is a billionaire with extensive business interests, has broken with past presidential tradition by not publicizing his tax returns. Because of this, it is impossible to verify details of his personal finances.

“To be clear, the president has no personal financial dealings with Russia. His ties are limited to hosting a [beauty] contest in Russia once and selling a Palm Beach home to a businessman in 2005. That’s it,” Spicer said.

Paul Manafort (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Paul Manafort (Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Later in the same briefing, Axios national political reporter Jonathan Swan asked if Trump knew before he hired Manafort that he “had worked to advance Putin’s interests.” Spicer said Trump was “not aware of Paul’s clients from last decade.” Swan pressed him on whether this lack of knowledge was “a problem.” Spicer responded that it was a “bit insane” to suggest that Trump should have known about the deal with Deripaska.

“What else don’t we know? I mean, where he went to school, what grades he got, who he played with in the sandbox?” Spicer asked sardonically. “To suggest that the president knew who his clients were from a decade ago is a bit insane.”

Spicer was also asked why Trump ultimately fired Manafort last August. The press secretary suggested that earlier headlines about some of Manafort’s foreign ties had become “a distraction” and that there were also issues with the campaign’s performance under his leadership.

“There were some issues coming up with his ties to Ukraine that were becoming a distraction,” Spicer said of Manafort. “Secondly, [Trump} was, I think, 16 points down at the time and he was down in the twenties in women. And I think the president recognized that he needed to make a change for those two reasons.”

There were reports that Manafort advised Trump about Cabinet picks during the transition between his election and the inauguration in January. Spicer said he had no knowledge of this and that there is “nothing that suggests” Manafort pushed Trump to take “pro-Russia” positions during the campaign.

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