But Manafort is hardly the only player the Trump team has downgraded retroactively — and often in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. This is part of a pattern, and it stretches back to the campaign.
In the same briefing Monday, Spicer seemed to dismiss longtime informal Trump adviser Roger Stone and former foreign policy adviser Carter Page as “hangers-on.” “Some of those names, the greatest amount of interaction that they've had is have cease-and-desist letters sent to them,” Spicer said. Former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, meanwhile, was only a “volunteer of the campaign,” Spicer said.
The common link between all four men, of course, is that they are now liabilities — under scrutiny for their interactions related to an investigation of Russian meddling in the campaign. But Spicer's efforts to suggest that their roles didn't amount to much truly strain credulity.
The Trump campaign did part ways with Stone in August 2015, and the two certainly have had an odd relationship. But that relationship dates back decades, and Stone is widely still considered a Trump associate. He told the National Review on Monday that he still advises Trump, in fact. “I prefer to communicate with the president through short, pithy memos, as I have for 39 years,” he said.
Stone is now facing scrutiny and may have to testify about his contacts with the hacker Guccifer 2.0, who has claimed responsibility for the hack at the Democratic National Committee.
Page was named to the Trump foreign policy team in March 2016, and as recently as August was described by Trump spokesman Hope Hicks as an “informal adviser.” But after it was reported that his contacts with Russia were being investigated, Trump campaign spokesman Jason Miller insisted that Page “has made no contribution to the campaign,” and Kellyanne Conway said he was “certainly not part of the campaign that I'm running.” Spicer said in January that Page was “an individual who the president-elect does not know and was put on notice months ago by the campaign.” Trump said in February that Page “was a very low-level member of I think a committee for a short period of time.”
In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper earlier this month, Page declined to detail his work with the campaign but did confirm that he wrote policy papers for it. And his experience on the campaign does span several months, according to the Trump team's own words — suggesting another liberal usage of a “short period of time.”
Flynn's role has been even clearer than Stone's and Page's. Although it could be claimed that they weren't a major influence on the campaign — even as it's clear they were involved — Flynn was there in public with Trump at campaign rallies and was a top surrogate. And then he later became Trump's national security adviser, albeit briefly. So calling him a “volunteer for the campaign” really undersells things.
But he's not even the only member of his family whose role has been strangely played down when he became a liability. His son, Michael Flynn Jr., became persona non grata after spreading the dubious conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” about Hillary Clinton. At the time, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said the younger Flynn “has no involvement in the transition.” Miller would later clarify that Flynn Jr. had been involved, though. “The younger Michael Flynn was helping his father with some administration and scheduling duties early in the transition process, and he is no longer involved with transition efforts.”
A similar thing happened with former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. After his run-in with a reporter and some missteps during the primaries, aides assured reporters in April that he was basically reduced to the role of a glorified body man and scheduler serving with the title of campaign manager. Yet the next month he was reportedly tasked with leading the vice-presidential search process. By June, he was fired.
So if you take at face value Spicer's comments about Manafort's “very limited role” and the campaign's comments back then about Lewandowski's diminished role, essentially nobody was running the campaign between April and June. (In fact, it's widely believed that Manafort was the de facto campaign manager during that time.)
And judging by how things are going right now, the number of people who were truly involved in getting Trump elected may continue to trend toward zero.