White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017. SHAWN THEW / EPA
The week before Inauguration Day, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had the unpleasant task of trying to dismiss the seriousness of Donald Trump’s Russia scandal. In practice, that meant dismissing some of the figures from the Trump campaign who were implicated in the broader controversy.
In the face of reports about Trump associates with controversial ties to Moscow, Spicer told reporters, for example, “Carter Page is an individual whom the president-elect does not know.”
It was a curious response. During the campaign, Trump personally singled out Page as one of only a handful of people who were advising him on matters of foreign policy, but as the controversy surrounding the campaign’s ties to Russia intensified, Spicer nevertheless made it sound as if Trump couldn’t pick his own adviser out of a lineup.
Today, as Politico reported, it happened again in an even more dramatic fashion.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to downplay scrutiny into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia on Monday by describing Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman, as someone “who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time” in the effort.
Asked at Monday’s press briefing if President Donald Trump stands by his earlier comments that he is not aware of any contacts between his campaign associates and Russia, Spicer acknowledged former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s previous relationship with the country, but described him as a “volunteer of the campaign.”
This is amazing for a couple of reasons. The first is that the claims are plainly ridiculous. Manafort was hired last year to help oversee Team Trump’s delegate-count operation, and soon after, Trump promoted him to the role of campaign chairman, the perch from which he effectively ran the entire campaign. (Manafort also reportedly helped out with personnel decisions during the transition.) To say the campaign chairman “played a very limited role” on the campaign is laughable.
The same is true of Flynn, who was obviously far more than just a campaign “volunteer.” The former general was a member of Trump’s inner circle; he played a prominent role at the Republican convention; and soon after the election, he was named White House National Security Advisor, which isn’t a role that goes to some random guy who had an unpaid gig on the campaign.
The other reason to take this seriously is what it tells us about the White House’s perspective. Team Trump wouldn’t argue publicly that Trump’s campaign chairman is an irrelevant, peripheral figure unless it were afraid of where the scandal is headed.
This is, in other words, a preemptive defense in the event Trump campaign officials are directly implicated in serious wrongdoing. Spicer is effectively declaring now, just in case, “Those guys aren’t our guys.”
For months, Trump, Spicer, and other prominent White House officials have dismissed the entire Russia scandal as utterly meaningless. They put their credibility on the line, swearing up and down that no one in the operation did anything wrong with regards to Russia. Today was one of the first pieces of clear evidence that Team Trump is now more concerned than it’d like to admit.