WASHINGTON - Special counsel Robert Muller's charges Monday against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and two other aides marked a new phase in his sprawling investigation into Russia and President Donald Trump, underscoring the ongoing threat Mueller poses to the president.
Trump immediately sought to distance himself after Manafort and Rick Gates pleaded not guilty to a 12-count indictment alleging money laundering, conspiracy and other offences and as another former aide was revealed to be co-operating with authorities after entering a guilty plea for lying to the FBI. White House officials were publicly optimistic about Mueller's investigation wrapping up swiftly, but the probe is far from over and its reach still uncertain.
Trump has become increasingly concerned that the Mueller probe could be moving beyond Russia to an investigation into his personal dealings, two people familiar with the president's thinking said. Trump expressed irritation Monday morning that he was being tarnished by his former aides.
In the hours after the indictment, the president angrily told one confidant that Manafort had been a campaign "part-timer" who had only helped steer the convention and got too much credit for Trump's ability to hold onto the nomination, according to a person familiar with the private discussion. Those describing Trump's thinking or private discussions were not authorized to speak publicly about them and requested anonymity.
Trump dismissed the money-laundering charges against Manafort as typical political corruption that did not reflect on his campaign, one of the persons said. The president also insisted that the charges predated Manafort's time on the campaign and that he should not be held responsible for any prior misdeeds by Manafort.
Trump took to Twitter to argue that allegations against Manafort were from "years ago" and asserted there was "NO COLLUSION" between his campaign and Russia. But the indictment against Manafort and Gates details allegations stretching from 2006 all the way to 2017.
And Trump's insistence that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia was complicated by the revelation that campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was answering questions from prosecutors after admitting he lied about his unsuccessful attempts to broker a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The White House tried to play down the campaign role of Papadopoulos, whom Trump named as a foreign policy adviser in March 2016, saying the aide's attempts to earn assistance from Russian nationals were unauthorized. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed him as an unpaid "volunteer" and said "no activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign in that regard."
Mueller's office revealed in a court filing that Papadopoulos was now assisting the investigation as a "proactive co-operator."
Sanders minimized Trump's reaction to the indictments.
"He responded the same way the rest of us in the White House have," she said, "and that's without a lot of reaction because it doesn't have anything to do with us."
Trump fumed in recent weeks that he believes Mueller was taking an expansive view of his role and looking beyond the narrow definition of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. The president publicly mused in a July interview that he might look to fire the special counsel if Mueller began looking into his business dealings, a possibility that has weighed on him in recent weeks, according to two people who have spoken to him but were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Trump tried a familiar ploy on Monday to shift attention to Democrats and his former rival, Hillary Clinton, asking on Twitter why they weren't subjects of Mueller's probe. But Trump's attempts to discredit the investigation by Mueller, a former FBI director, threaten to alienate him from Republican lawmakers, who have supported the inquiry.
Trump has at times chafed at his legal team's advice to be deferential to Mueller's investigation, toying with the notion of going on the offensive. Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has encouraged the more aggressive approach, according to a person familiar with his thinking but not authorized to discuss it by name.
The indictments of Manafort and Gates, his longtime protege, were largely anticipated by White House officials, who viewed the pair warily. And they expressed relief that Mueller's charges against the two didn't specifically pertain to Russia or Trump. Gates had been a key outside adviser, participating in meetings with White House officials as recently as last summer. The White House said Trump last recalled speaking with Manafort by phone in February.
Manafort held a critical role in Trump's campaign, spearheading his efforts to counter a concerted delegate challenge to his nomination in 2016. He had been recommended by Trump's inner circle: first by longtime Trump friend Tom Barrack, who then urged Ivanka Trump to lobby her father on Manafort's behalf. After the ouster of Corey Lewandowski as campaign manager in June 2016, Manafort became the de-facto campaign manager until he himself was pushed out in August 2016 over his lobbying work on behalf of pro-Russian officials in Ukraine.
Gates remained part of the Trump campaign after Manafort's departure and took on a role planning Trump's inauguration under Barrack, for whom he has continued to work. He briefly was an adviser to the pro-Trump organization America First Policies.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Ken Thomas in Washington contributed to this report.
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