The White House on Monday sought to separate itself from controversial figures it described as tangential to President Trump’s campaign, saying that Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort played only a “limited role” in the campaign.
The Trump administration was in damage control mode Monday after FBI Director James Comey testified before a congressional panel that his agency is investigating Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election — including potential links between members of Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
Under heated questioning from reporters at a press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer noted that former President Obama’s director of national intelligence James Clapper and others have said they have not seen any evidence to suggest collusion.Spicer attempted to shift focus of the FBI investigation to individuals he described as "hangers-on" to the campaign — Carter Page, who once acted as a foreign policy adviser to Trump and Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant. Spicer also mentioned Manafort, who led Trump’s campaign for about five months in 2016 before he was replaced.
“There is a point at which you continue to search for something that everybody has been briefed has not seen or found,” Spicer said. “I think it is fine to look into it but at the end of the day, they're going to come to the same conclusion everybody else has had … I heard some names floated around before, that were hangers-on around the campaign. I think at some point, people that got thrown around at the beginning of this hearing, some of those names, the greatest amount of interaction they have had was a cease and desist letters sent to them.
"The greatest interaction they had with the campaign was the campaign sending them a series of cease and desist letters," Spicer said.
Over the course of the election, the Trump campaign publicly distanced itself from both Page and Stone, a self-described dirty trickster who has admitted having contact with Guccifer 2.0, a hacker believed to be a front for Russian intelligence services.
But Manafort led the Trump campaign through a crucial stretch before being fired in the wake of reports of work he had done work for the Ukrainian government. There have been numerous media reports about Manafort being the subject of an FBI investigation, which he has disputed.
“I think that when you read a lot of this activity about associates, there is a fine line between people who want to be part of something that they never had an official role and in people who actually played a role in the campaign or transition,” Spicer said. “Obviously there has been some discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time."
Pressed later in the briefing on how Manafort could have only had a "limited" role in a campaign that he managed, Spicer focused on the gap between Manafort's exit and the general election.
"By the middle of August, he was no longer with the campaign, meaning that for the final stretch of the general election he was not involved," Spicer said.
Spicer was also asked if anyone from the White House has interviewed with the FBI as part of the investigation.
"Not that I am aware of," Spicer responded.