The White House on Wednesday insisted that the president had no idea his former campaign chairman had worked to advance the interests of the Russian government when he was hired last year.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed “insane” suggestions that Trump might have known about Paul Manafort’s past work for a Kremlin-linked Russian oligarch—noting that his work in Russia was public record.
And it would have been, if Manafort filled out the proper forms. But he didn’t, and he’s now facing allegations of a federal crime as a result.
Spicer’s comments followed an Associated Press report revealing that Manafort worked for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. Under his $10 million annual contract, Manafort pursued policies to “greatly benefit” Putin’s government, according to the AP report.
Spicer insisted that the news has no bearing on an ongoing FBI investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.
His comments came a day after he sought to downplay Manafort’s involvement with the 2016 campaign. On Tuesday, Spicer said the former campaign chairman “played a very limited role” on the campaign.
Spicer brushed aside questions on Wednesday about whether Trump should have known about Manafort’s past dealings with an adversarial foreign government, even as he described that work, and Manafort’s representation of other governments, as readily available information.
“Paul represented many foreign clients, according to publicly available data, including in Asia, Africa, and Europe,” he told reporters. “His representation of foreign clients is public.”
But he also dismissed suggestions that Trump might have been aware of that public information.
“The president was not aware of Paul’s clients from the last decade,” Spicer said. “To suggest that the president knew who his clients were from a decade ago were is a bit insane.”
Spicer went on to compare Manafort’s work to that of Tony Podesta, a Democratic lobbyist and fundraiser—and the brother of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman—who has represented numerous clients aligned with foreign governments, including a state-owned Russian bank.
“There is no suggestion that he did anything improper,” Spicer said of Manafort. “He did not fill out any paperwork attesting to something that he did that suggests there was anything nefarious.”
On the contrary, it is Manafort’s failure to fill out paperwork that has some in Congress suggesting he may have committed a serious crime, and contradicts Spicer’s assertions that there have been no allegations of impropriety, and that relevant information on Manafort’s past clients was publicly available information
To the extent that his work was designed to advance the interests of the Russian government, it should have been, but was not, disclosed to the Department of Justice.
The Foreign Agent Registration Act requires that lobbyists and public relations officials working to advance the interests of foreign governments disclose extensive details on their activity to DOJ.
Manafort’s failure to do so could rise to the level of a federal crime, according to Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
“According to his own words, his work was intended to ‘greatly benefit the Putin Government,’” Cummings said in an emailed statement. “If he was actively undermining U.S. policy by promoting Putin’s interests and receiving millions of dollars for it, a criminal prosecution may be warranted.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, has called for Manafort to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee “to give Americans answers they deserve.”
The White House’s dismissals of any allegations of impropriety involving Manafort came as Cummings and Oversight chairman Jason Chaffetz sought information on contacts between another former senior Trump aide, former White House National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, and agents of the Russian government.
Chaffetz and Cummings requested information on Flynn’s “foreign contacts and payments” from White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and the heads of the Pentagon and the FBI.
Flynn stepped down from his post last month after it was revealed that he had failed to disclose discussions with the Russian ambassador to Washington regarding U.S. sanctions against the country.