Spicer: Manafort played 'limited role' in campaign

Committee looks at campaign's Russian connection

By DAN MERICA , CNN
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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (CNN) - White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer diminished the role of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, remarks made at the same time as a House Intelligence Committee hearing investigated whether campaign aides colluded with Russia during last year's presidential race.

Spicer, pressed on a number of Trump associates' connections to Russian operatives, claimed Manafort played a "limited role (in the campaign) for a very limited amount of time."

Manafort was hired by the Trump campaign in March 2016 to lead the delegate operation on the floor of the Republican National Committee in Cleveland.

Manafort was promoted in May to campaign chairman and chief strategist. And when campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was fired in June, Manafort -- who butted heads with Lewandowski -- was widely seen as the campaign's top official.

Manafort is largely credited with securing Trump the Republican nomination, through a mix of deep ties in the Republican establishment and tireless organizing to win the Republican delegate fight which almost derailed Trump one year ago.

But Manafort's control did not last through Election Day. As power centers within the Trump campaign in August began to shift away from him to Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon as campaign CEO and Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager, the former lobbyist stepped down from his campaign.

The resignation came amid a New York Times report that Manafort received $12.7 million in secret cash payments earmarked for Manafort from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. CNN reported August 19 that the FBI and Justice Department were investigating Americans tied to alleged corruption of the former pro-Russian President of Ukraine, including the work of Manafort's firm. Manafort resigned that day.

Although Manafort played no official role in the campaign between August and November, sources told CNN in December that the former chairman was still very much involved with Trump and played an informal role in the presidential transition.

Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed -- for the first time publicly -- that the FBI was investigating "the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election" and their possible connection to Trump's presidential campaign.

The inquiry includes "individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts."

"It's clear nothing has changed," Spicer said of Comey's revelation.

But pressed on his initial comment about Manafort, Spicer later said that he was not trying to demote the former campaign chairman but rather note he was not with the campaign at the end.

"With respect to Paul, though, I believe ... Paul was brought on sometime in June and by the middle of August he was no longer with the campaign, meaning for the final stretch of the general election, he was not involved," Spicer said, misstating when Manafort was hired.

Manafort, along with former national security adviser Michael Flynn and foreign policy adviser Carter Page, are at the center of the FBI's inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, sources told CNN.

Spicer also tried to diminish Flynn's role in the campaign, despite the fact that he was a top adviser to the president who spoke at the Republican National Convention and was named national security adviser during the campaign.

Spicer said Flynn was only a volunteer on the campaign.

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