Spicer tries to distance Trump from top members of his campaign team

White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017. SHAWN THEW / EPA

White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to downplay scrutiny into the Trump campaign's relationship with Russia on Monday by describing Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman, as someone "who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time" in the effort.Asked at Monday's press briefing if President Donald Trump stands by his earlier comments that he is not aware of any contacts between his campaign associates and Russia, Spicer acknowledged former national security adviser Michael Flynn's previous relationship with the country, but described him as a "volunteer of the campaign."

This is amazing for a couple of reasons. The first is that the claims are plainly ridiculous. Manafort was hired last year to help oversee Team Trump's delegate-count operation, and soon after, Trump promoted him to the role of campaign chairman, the perch from which he effectively ran the entire campaign. (Manafort also reportedly helped out with personnel decisions during the transition.) To say the campaign chairman "played a very limited role" on the campaign is laughable.The same is true of Flynn, who was obviously far more than just a campaign "volunteer." The former general was a member of Trump's inner circle; he played a prominent role at the Republican convention; and soon after the election, he was named White House National Security Advisor, which isn't a role that goes to some random guy who had an unpaid gig on the campaign.The other reason to take this seriously is what it tells us about the White House's perspective. Team Trump wouldn't argue publicly that Trump's campaign chairman is an irrelevant, peripheral figure unless it were afraid of where the scandal is headed.This is, in other words, a preemptive defense in the event Trump campaign officials are directly implicated in serious wrongdoing. Spicer is effectively declaring now, just in case, "Those guys aren't our guys."For months, Trump, Spicer, and other prominent White House officials have dismissed the entire Russia scandal as utterly meaningless. They put their credibility on the line, swearing up and down that no one in the operation did anything wrong with regards to Russia. Today was one of the first pieces of clear evidence that Team Trump is now more concerned than it'd like to admit.