The special counsel investigating possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia filed its first charges Monday, including against his onetime campaign chief. The White House, and some sympathetic Republicans, would prefer we talk about Hillary Clinton.
“The real collusion scandal, as we’ve said several times before, has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS, and Russia,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a Monday briefing.
"Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” the president tweeted after the indictment against Manafort, his former campaign manager, and Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, was released. “But why aren't Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????"
He then followed up with another tweet: "....Also, there is NO COLLUSION!"
When asked about the indictments Monday on CNN, Steve Rogers, a Trump campaign adviser, responded, “There’s a lot of focus on this. But what about Hillary Clinton? What about Obama? What about Loretta Lynch?” Special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, he said, is a “fishing expedition.”
“Let’s talk about facts,” he said. “Let’s not talk about fantasy.”
For a White House that's consistently bounced between crises and offered mixed messages in response, Trump allies kept tight to a script that might be untenable in the long term: Downplay the charges, pivot to Democrats when possible, and undermine the special counsel's investigation.
But even as they’ve stayed on the White House’s page publicly, some Republicans privately acknowledge the tactic is just a temporary cover over how serious Mueller’s probe has become.
“Mueller is looking for blood,” a source who regularly speaks to the administration told BuzzFeed News.
The source was more dour than usual, noting that if it were just Manafort and Gates who were charged Monday, the administration could have easily said it was proof that Mueller’s investigation was a “ridiculous witch hunt” meant to be a “forensic audit” of Trump family finances. But the surprise indictment and guilty plea of lower-level campaign adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to federal investigators about his communications with people tied to the Russian government, and the fact that the US government’s filing says he has been talking with investigators for months, is an ominous turn, showing the investigation not going away anytime soon.
While there was concern in Trump world, the source said the White House is confident in its strategy to deflect attention off the Russia investigation to calls for Democrats and their 2016 nominee to be scrutinized instead.
The strategy is rooted in recent reporting showing that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which produced the explosive and unverified dossier of information on Trump’s connections to Russia, during the general election. BuzzFeed News published the dossier in January, after it was shown to President Obama and President-elect Trump.
But as more Trump campaign officials get dragged into Mueller’s probe, the pivot to Clinton, who is no longer a government official or candidate for office, risks becoming even more absurd.
Sanders, at her press briefing, repeatedly distanced the president from the charges against Manafort and Gates, and referred to Papadopoulos — whom the president touted last year in an interview as an “excellent guy” — as a campaign "volunteer."
The charges against him, Sanders said, have “nothing to do with the activities of the campaign. It has to do with his failure to tell the truth.” The indictment against Papadopoulos laid out his communications with Russians while he was working for the campaign.
Likewise, the Manafort and Gates announcement “has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with president’s campaign or campaign activity,” Sanders said, before quickly attacking Clinton.
“There’s clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding with Russian intelligence to spread disinformation, to smear the president and influence the president.”
Matt Schlapp, a GOP operative who is close to Trump, pointed to a different announcement on Monday in turning the news of the indictments to the Clinton campaign and Democrats. Tony Podesta, Democratic lobbyist and brother of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, stepped down from his lobbying firm, Podesta Group, as a result of Mueller’s probe. Podesta Group was one of the firms paid to do public relations work on a campaign organized by Manafort for the European Centre for Modern Ukraine. “Like plenty of swamp stories, there’s plenty to talk about on the Democratic side,” Schlapp said.
Clinton's former press secretary Brian Fallon told BuzzFeed News the White House wants Americans to believe that even though Russia hacked and "weaponized" emails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign, it was actually the Democrats, and not Trump, who colluded with the Russians. "It is a plot only Fox News could possibly believe and it sure isn’t going to pass Bob Mueller's bullshit detector," he said.
Republican leaders in Washington stayed on message in their own way. “The special counsel’s got his lane, and we have our lane,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told reporters Monday afternoon. And as House Speaker Paul Ryan made the rounds on Wisconsin media Monday morning to talk about tax reform — and only tax reform — several House Republican aides said they believed that if members stayed disciplined, they could keep the focus where the speaker insisted it should be.
“We’re all watching, but it’s not in our sandbox right now,” one House GOP aide told BuzzFeed News.
And after a weekend of suspense following Friday night’s reports of impending arrests in the Mueller probe, the charges against Manafort and Gates — which include conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to launder money — brought some relief in Trump's orbit, as the 12 counts did not specifically include work for the campaign.
"It's stuff that predates the campaign," said a source close to the administration who worked on the campaign. “It’s a nothingburger when it comes to Trump.” Several other Republicans also said it wasn't news that Manafort was "sketchy." It “fits into the narrative of who he is. This isn't revolutionary," said one House GOP aide. "Manafort? That's not a body blow. That's a paper cut."
Even those rationalizations, though, don’t explain why Trump, who frequently boasts of only hiring the “best” people, would have hired someone so widely regarded as “sketchy” to begin with.
There was also solace, sources close to the White House said, in the fact that the first targets of Mueller's investigation were Manafort and Gates — and not former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who was fired from the administration over undisclosed contacts with Russian officials.
Manafort was “low-hanging fruit” for the special counsel, another Trump surrogate, former representative Jack Kingston, told BuzzFeed News, adding that the indictment focuses on the years before Manafort joined up with Trump. “Given a legal team and an unlimited budget, you can go anywhere you want,” he said of Mueller’s investigation, adding that questions remain over Mueller’s knowledge and use of the explosive dossier that contained unsubstantiated allegations about Trump and Russia.
The complaint against Papadopoulos, though, presented a different problem for the president’s allies trying to muddy the waters between Trump and Clinton. The former foreign policy adviser was a “30-year-old kid trying to be significant, trying to set up meetings that were all rejected” and the “campaign was uncomfortable with his overtures,” Kingston argued.
A separate source close to the White House who was part of the campaign also sought to downplay Papadopoulos role, calling him an “overzealous volunteer.”
The charges against Papadopoulos unveiled by the government Monday, however, contend that that’s not quite true. According to the government, when Papadopoulos sent an unnamed Trump campaign supervisor an email detailing his efforts to “arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump,” the supervisor responded, “Great work.” Later, the unnamed supervisor allegedly told Papadopoulos, “I would encourage you” to make a trip “if it is feasible” for meetings Papadopoulos had tried to set up with Russian officials.
Republicans working on campaigns next year were nonplussed.
None of the other supposed scandals surrounding this administration have broken through enough to cause problems with voters, so why, they said, would this one? And some Republican voters, they told BuzzFeed News, increasingly saw stories like this as overhyped by the media. One GOP campaign operative said the best option was to take up the White House line, which had the virtue of keeping a candidate in line with Republican voters, while also enabling that candidate to avoid making any direct comment on the indictments that could prove problematic if another shoe were to drop later.
“It’s a way to make a ‘no comment’ comment,” the strategist said.
Attacks specifically on Mueller have blossomed in conservative media since since Friday night. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board on Sunday called for Mueller to resign, and also for an investigation into DNC and Clinton’s potential collusion with Russia. Fox News also devoted a significant chunk of its coverage over the weekend and Monday to “growing concerns over Mueller’s credibility.” Jeanine Pirro, on her Fox show Saturday night, opened with an eight-minute tirade against Mueller, Clinton, and Obama officials. “It’s time, folks. It’s time to shut it down, turn the tables, and lock her up. That’s what I said. I actually said it,” she said.
But some in the Trump orbit worry more indictments closer to the Trump family could completely blow up any ability to divert attention.
“Trump’s presidency is on a downward trajectory,” said the source in contact with White House officials. “If they don’t pass taxes by the end of the year, maybe Mike Pence’s gamble of always smiling and kissing Trump’s ass will eventually pay off.”