Last month, after the New York Times and CNN reported that Paul Manafort communicated with Russian intelligence officials during the race for the White House, President Trump went to bat for his former campaign chairman.
“Manafort has totally denied it,” Trump said at a Feb. 16 news conference. “He denied it. Now, people knew that he was a consultant over in that part of the world for a while, but not for Russia. I think he represented Ukraine or people having to do with Ukraine.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer attempted to distance the president from Manafort, claiming that the man who was once the top official in Trump’s campaign “played a very limited role for a very limited period of time.”
Now, after the Associated Press reported Wednesday that Manafort signed a $10 million annual contract with a Russian billionaire in 2006, promising a political strategy that “can greatly benefit the Putin government,” Spicer has presented another position: Trump did not know about the deal, and it is unreasonable for journalists to think that he should have known.
“What else don't we know?” Spicer said during a news briefing Wednesday. “I mean, where he went to school, what grades he got, who he played with in the sandbox?”
“To suggest that the president knew who clients were from a decade ago is a bit insane,” Spicer added. “He was not — he is not a government employee. He didn’t fill out any paperwork attesting to something.”
It is true (obviously) that campaign employees are not subject to the same federally mandated vetting process as government hires. However, that does not mean Trump could not or should not have asked Manafort whether any of his consulting work might present a problem for the campaign.
Spicer’s “sandbox” line was a clever quip, but it was not an apt comparison. Checking for political liabilities in the professional background of your campaign chairman is hardly a frivolous endeavor.
At minimum, it would have been wise for the White House to scrutinize Manafort’s client roll before Trump stuck his neck out and said that his former aide “was a consultant over in that part of the world for a while, but not for Russia.”