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Mar 21, 3:38 AM EDT

Administration tries to distance campaign aides from Trump


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House is distancing itself from two former senior members of Donald Trump's team amid an FBI investigation into possible connections between Trump "associates" and Russia.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday referred to Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, as a "volunteer of the campaign." And he said Paul Manafort, who ran Trump's campaign for months, "played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time."

"And so to start to look at some individual that was there for a short period of time or, separately, individuals who really didn't play any role in the campaign and to suggest that those are the basis for anything is a bit ridiculous," he said.

Spicer wrongly claimed that Manafort was brought onto Trump's campaign "sometime in June and by the middle of August he was no longer with the campaign." In fact, Manafort was hired in late March as Trump's convention manager, and was promoted to campaign chairman in May. He resigned from the campaign's top post in mid-August, amid an onslaught of negative press having to do with his past work for foreign governments, including pro-Russian Ukrainian leaders.

Manafort issued a statement Monday defending himself against suggestions he played a part in Russia's efforts to interfere with the U.S. presidential campaign. He said he had "no role or involvement" in the cyber hack of the Democratic National Committee and disclosure of stolen emails.

Flynn, meanwhile, was one of the president's closest advisers throughout the campaign and the transition, frequently traveling on his plane. He was named national security adviser, but resigned from the White House last month after he was found to have misled senior members of the administration about his contacts with Russia's top diplomat to the U.S.

During a congressional hearing Monday examining Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible connections between Moscow and Trump's aides, FBI Director James Comey was asked about various campaign advisers and staffers, including Carter Page, whom Trump once named as one of his foreign policy advisers. Comey generally declined to talk about specific staffers.

In a letter to the Senate intelligence committee, Page, who has emerged as a key figure in the controversy surrounding Trump associates' connections to Russia, cast himself as a regular presence in Trump Tower, where the campaign was headquartered.

"I have frequently dined in Trump Grill, had lunch in Trump Café, had coffee meetings in the Starbucks at Trump Tower, attended events and spent many hours in campaign headquarters on the fifth floor last year," Page wrote. It is unclear whether that is true. After the campaign, Trump's lawyers sent Page at least two cease and desist letters.

Spicer described Page and other individuals mentioned during the hearing as "hangers-oner on the campaign."

"Those people, the greatest amount of interaction that they had with the campaign was the campaign apparently sending them a series of cease and desists," he said.

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