President Trump and the White House greeted the indictment of the president’s former campaign chairman, on charges including conspiracy against the United States, with a mixture of silence, distance and deflection on Monday morning.
“No comment,” said a senior White House spokesman.
Trump, who has long tried to diminish Manafort’s influence, was not so reticent.
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” he tweeted a little more than an hour after the indictment was unsealed. “But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”
“....Also, there is NO COLLUSION!” he added in a second tweet.
While the initial charges against Manafort did not directly relate to the Trump campaign, they could open the door for further charges or cooperation by Manafort and his co-defendant Rick Gates, a former campaign and White House aide. And they came just as news broke of a serious development that does touch the campaign: George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy advisor for the campaign, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with a Russian claiming to have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
The just-released indictment of Papadopoulos makes clear that he is cooperating with the probe led by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The legal developments followed a busy weekend for the president on Twitter, as he tried to deflect attention from Washington’s anticipation about Mueller’s plans by spreading accusations about Hillary Clinton and Democrats.
Trump’s tweet Monday was in keeping with his, and the White House’s, longtime attempts to downplay Manafort’s role in Trump’s orbit.
Manafort, who made his name long ago in Ronald Reagan’s employ but since has been a lobbyist for many foreign interests, was hired by the campaign in late March 2016. He served as campaign chairman from May through August, leading it through a crucial period that included the Republican National Convention, when Manafort needed to wrangle dissident Republicans who threatened to press for a more mainstream choice than Trump.
He also played a role in shaping the party’s platform at the convention, including a reported effort to ensure it did not endorse supplying weapons to Ukrainians fighting Russian-backed forces.
In April 2016, Trump retweeted a supporter praising Manafort’s addition to the campaign. “I am thrilled you are part of this Team-GO TRUMP!"
Trump later had little to say about him after Manafort left the campaign amid reports tying him to shady payments from Ukraine’s government when it was pro-Moscow and to a pro-Putin oligarch. Since the election, Trump has had even less to say.
“He was replaced long before the election,” Trump said at a February news conference. “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 Manafort was replaced long before the election took place. He was only there for a short period of time.”
Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer famously dismissed Manafort in March as a bit actor who “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
“I believe Paul was brought on sometime in June, and by the middle of August he was no longer with the campaign, meaning that for the entire final stretch of the general election, he was not involved,” Spicer said. “And so to start to look at some individual that was there for a short period of time, or, separately, individuals who really didn’t play any role in the campaign, and to suggest that those are the basis for anything is a bit ridiculous.”
Spicer’s distancing effort was widely ridiculed, including by some Republicans.
Trump, in another press conference in August, shortly after Manafort’s home was raided by FBI investigators, reiterated his earlier comments that he had lost touch with the former strategist.
“I thought it was a very, very strong signal or whatever,” Trump said of the raid. “I know Mr. Manafort. I haven’t spoken to him in a long time, but I know him. He was with the campaign, as you know, for a very short period of time -- relatively short period of time. But I've always known him to be a good man.”
Trump also maintained that he knew little about Manafort’s extensive international business ties, which had spawned suspicion in Washington long before he was hired. He offered a partial defense.
“I've always found Paul Manafort to be a very decent man,” Trump said. “And he's like a lot of other people -- probably makes consultant fees from all over the place. Who knows? I don’t know.”
Staff writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this article.