As part of an ongoing effort to convince the public that his campaign did not collude with Russia, President Trump on Friday dramatically misrepresented comments made by the judge who presided over the sentencing of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Manafort was sentenced to nearly four years in prison on Thursday for cheating on his taxes and bank fraud. The case was prosecuted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office but was unrelated to his core mission of investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
During Thursday’s proceedings in a courtroom in Alexandria, U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III noted the distinction, saying that Manafort was “not before this court for anything having to do with collusion with the Russian government to influence this election.”
In a tweet and later when talking to reporters, Trump incorrectly suggested that Ellis’s comments had cleared his campaign of wrongdoing.
“Both [Manafort’s] lawyer, a very respected man, and a highly respected judge, the judge said there was no collusion with Russia,” Trump told reporters as he was leaving the White House en route to Alabama to view tornado damage.
Trump said he was “very honored” by the judge’s words, adding: “It’s a collusion hoax. It’s a collusion witch hoax. I don’t collude with Russia.”
A tweet sent earlier Friday morning sought to make the same point.
“Both the Judge and the lawyer in the Paul Manafort case stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia,” Trump wrote. “But the Witch Hunt Hoax continues as you now add these statements to House & Senate Intelligence & Senator Burr. So bad for our Country!”
Trump’s tweet and comments to reporters referenced Manafort lawyer Kevin Downing, who told reporters outside the courthouse that “there is absolutely no evidence Paul Manafort worked in collusion with any government official from Russia.”
Trump’s tweet prompted immediate pushback from lawmakers, including Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).
“This case doesn’t prove there was no collusion because that wasn’t the subject of the trial,” King said during an appearance on CNN.
At a trial last year, Manafort was found guilty of hiding millions he made lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian politicians in overseas bank accounts, then falsifying his finances to get loans when his patrons lost power. Prosecutors highlighted his lavish lifestyle, saying his crimes were used to pay for high-end clothes and multiple properties.
Manafort’s sentence Thursday was substantially less than the roughly 20 years he had faced under federal sentencing guidelines.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “I think it’s been a very, very tough time for him.”
Manafort contends he is mere collateral damage in Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller is expected to send a report in coming weeks to Attorney General William P. Barr regarding his findings related to election interference.
The House Intelligence and Senate Intelligence committees are continuing Russia-related investigations as well. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate panel, whom Trump referenced in his tweet, has said he has seen no direct evidence of collusion.
Democratic lawmakers have said Burr’s assessment is premature.
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.