The White House on Monday distanced itself from former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, wrote off another foreign policy adviser from the campaign, vowed not to be distracted by criminal cases against both men and insisted any collusion with Russia was committed by the Clinton campaign.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders batted away a barrage of questions in the hours after special counsel Robert Mueller announced a guilty plea by former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos and an indictment against former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
“Today’s announcement has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president’s campaign or campaign activity,” she said at the daily White House briefing. “The real collusion scandal, as we’ve said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS and Russia.”
Mr. Trump also weighed in via Twitter, saying “there is NO COLLUSION!”
He said the charges against Mr. Manafort predate his involvement with Mr. Trump. “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????” the president wrote on Twitter.
The fierce pushback followed Mr. Mueller’s bombshell indictments that hit close to home for Mr. Trump.
Mr. Manafort, who served in the Trump campaign from March to August, was charged in a 12-count indictment that included conspiring against the U.S. and money laundering linked to a Kremlin-backed candidate in Ukraine.
The indictment also named Rick Gates, a longtime business partner of Mr. Manafort who served as a field operative for the Trump campaign and has had direct contact with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents about his dealings with Russia. He had attempted to set up meetings with Kremlin-linked operatives to gather “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, the government charged, in a long fact statement detailing repeated efforts to arrange meetings.
According to the charging documents in the case, Mr. Papadopoulos kept two superiors in the campaign updated on his activities and earned praise for some of his efforts. Still, a senior official, in an email to others in the campaign, shot down the idea of Mr. Trump making the trip to meet Russian officials that Mr. Papadopoulos had been trying to arrange.
“We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips,” the campaign figure, identified only as “high-ranking,” said in an email that didn’t include Mr. Papadopoulos in the list of recipients.
As late as August 2016, the campaign official was still encouraging Mr. Papadopoulos to make a trip to meet with Russian Foreign Ministry officials. The trip never happened.
Despite those communications, Mrs. Sanders described Mr. Papadopoulos as a minor figure in the campaign.
She said he was an unpaid volunteer on the foreign policy advisory committee that met only one time. She also said the president doesn’t remember Mr. Papadopoulos mentioning Russian overtures to secure a meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mrs. Sanders said Mr. Papadopoulos’ guilty plea didn’t prove any wrongdoing by the Trump team.
“It has nothing to do with the activities of the campaign. It has to do with his failure to tell the truth,” Mrs. Sanders said.
The indictments against Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates also did not mention Mr. Trump, the Trump campaign or collusion with Russia.
Still, the developments gave momentum to Mr. Mueller’s probe, and the timing — just days before the rollout of the Republican tax reform plan — threatened to frustrate Mr. Trump’s agenda.
“We’re not worried about it distracting because it doesn’t have anything to do with us,” said Mrs. Sanders.
The increased scrutiny of the president appeared as his approval rating sank to a new low.
A Gallup poll showed 33 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Trump’s performance as president while a whopping 62 percent disapprove.
His numbers dipped into the low 30s over the summer and to 34 percent around Labor Day weekend when tensions with North Korea began to escalate.
Neither Mrs. Sanders nor Mr. Trump criticized either of the three men.
Ronald T. Hosko, a 30-year veteran of the FBI who is now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said the sheer amount of money prosecutors said was involved in Mr. Manafort’s laundering operation is stunning.
“You don’t have to be politically oriented to read this indictment and be offended by the conduct that’s alleged,” he said. “Look at the blue-collar workers who voted in large numbers for Donald Trump who are not going to make that sort of money in their lifetime.”
Mr. Trump busied himself Monday with meetings with his attorney general and secretaries of defense and state.
The only public appearance he had was a Halloween event in the evening.
He was active on Twitter over the weekend and Monday morning, though, where he insisted that accusations of collusion against his campaign are unfounded and better directed at Mrs. Clinton.
Christopher Swift, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer who specializes on Russia sections issues, said the president should avoid tweeting about the Russia probe and should not talk about it on any other format.
The indictments open the next phase of the federal prosecutor’s work, and Mr. Trump would be better served by having the White House counsel, his press secretary and his personal attorney doing the talking, he said.
“If he was my client, I would be very frustrated about my client getting in the way of my ability to help him,” Mr. Swift said.