Spicer on Russia probe: Paul Manafort had a "very limited role" in the campaign for a "very limited amount of time"

Credit where it’s due: He does an able job here for the most part of digesting the sh*t sandwich Comey handed him this morning. He starts with his strongest point, that to this day no credible evidence has appeared in the media alleging actual collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia last year. On the contrary, intel pros as high-ranking as James Clapper and Mike Morell have claimed there’s no evidence that the two were in cahoots. Spicer follows with another strong point: Some of the people named in the media as “Trump associates” in connection with the Russia probe, like Carter Page, were minor players in the campaign. Even those who weren’t so minor, like Mike Flynn, haven’t been accused of anything truly damning. Flynn’s phone call with the Russian ambassador in December about lifting sanctions was ambiguous according to every account I’ve read; no guarantees were made by the incoming administration about sanctions relief. In fact, during his brief time as NSA, Flynn recommended adding the small nation of Montenegro to NATO to try to scare Moscow away from further meddling there. There is, as Morell said recently, plenty of smoke in the Trump/Russia story, but no fire. And Spicer’s smart to emphasize that.

But … Paul Manafort, who ended up managing Trump’s campaign for a chunk of 2016, had a “very limited role”? C’mon. Manafort joined the campaign in late March, more than a month before Trump effectively clinched the nomination by winning Indiana, and hung on for nearly five months. He was the mastermind of efforts to keep the delegates in line in Cleveland when NeverTrumpers were agitating for a floor revolt. The smart spin for the White House on Manafort is simply to emphasize that his relationship with Moscow predates his work for the Trump campaign. He used to work for Putin’s Ukrainian puppet Viktor Yanukovych, a shameful arrangement but one which would have given him a non-Trump reason to be in contact with Russian officials from time to time going forward. If in fact he was talking to Russians, it may be that that had to do with Ukraine or some other business he had with Russia, not with the campaign. You can understand why the FBI would want to know more — was the Russia-linked campaign chief for the GOP nominee talking to Russians at a moment when Russia was trying to help the GOP nominee win? — but there’s no hard evidence yet of collusion so far as we know. Instead of stressing that, Spicer resorts to the ridiculous point that Manafort’s role was “limited.” And given how he snaps at Jon Karl for interrupting, he seems to know he’s out on a limb.

Here he is on Manafort, plus a clip of him standing by Trump’s “wiretapping” allegation on grounds that Comey didn’t say there was no surveillance of Trump or his associates. That’s been the White House spin for two weeks now — when Trump said “wiretapping” he was referring to much more than the literal definition of that word. Presumably, if it comes out that Manafort or anyone else linked to the campaign was recorded incidentally during surveillance of Russian officials, the White House will declare itself vindicated.