WHITE HOUSE —
The White House went on the defensive Monday, distancing President Donald Trump from charges filed against two former campaign aides by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in connection with the probe into Russia's attempt to influence last year's presidential election.
The pair, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and longtime business associate Rick Gates, were named in a 12-count indictment Monday charging money laundering, tax evasion and other violations. They pleaded not guilty Monday in a federal court in Washington.
Another former campaign foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents in January about his contacts with people "he understood to have close connections to senior Russian government officials."
At Monday's White House briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasized that the Manafort and Gates indictments made no mention of Trump or of any collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia.
"Today's announcement has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president's campaign or campaign activity," Sanders said. "We've been saying from day one there's no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and nothing in the indictment today changes that at all."
However Papadapoulos' guilty plea directly relates to him misleading FBI agents who are investigating whether the campaign colluded with Russia.
The press secretary rejected that the plea could be seen as evidence of collusion.
Sanders on Monday called Papadopoulus a low-level unpaid campaign volunteer whose illegal activities were not campaign-related. "It has nothing to do with the activities of the campaign, it has to do with his failure to tell the truth. That doesn't have anything to do with the campaign or the campaign's activity," she said.
While Papadopoulos was a lower level advisor to the campaign, President Trump called him an "excellent guy" in a March, 2016 interview, in which he was one of five named foreign policy advisors to the candidate.
Manafort's attorney Kevin Downing, in a statement after his client's arraignment, noted that the indictment made no mention of Trump, Russia or collusion. "I think you all saw today that President Donald Trump was correct," Downing said. "There is no evidence that Mr. Manafort or the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government."
Downing argued that his client's activities were legal and aimed at helping a nation struggling to establish democracy after being freed from the Soviet Union.
"Mr. Manafort represented pro-European Union campaigns for the Ukrainian government. And in that, he was seeking to further democracy and to help the Ukraine come closer to the United States and the EU," Downing said. "Those activities ended in 2014, over two years before Mr. Manafort served in the Trump campaign."
Trump tweeted "There is NO COLLUSION!" shortly after the indictment was unsealed Monday morning.
Senior Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah called Manafort's indictment "an overreach." He told reporters on Monday "frankly I'm having a rough time seeing why in the world they're indicting him.''
Hatch's comments came during a news conference held by Judiciary Committee Republicans and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to talk about judicial nominees but when reporters tried to raise questions about the indictments, McConnell left without addressing the issue.
Another Trump tweet noted that the allegations contained in the indictment against Manafort involve activities that took place before he was briefly head of Trump's campaign last year. The tweet also pointed an accusative finger at Trump's opponent in the election, asking "Why aren't Crooked Hillary and the Dems in the focus?????"