ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Our top story today has several parts to it, and the White House is trying to distance itself from all of it. The first indictments have been filed in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's involvement in the 2016 campaign. Mueller's team unveiled charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his top aide, Rick Gates, for alleged conspiracy, failure to register as foreign agents and hiding millions of dollars in lobbying income. Both Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors also revealed that another campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty earlier this month for making false statements to the FBI. According to the court documents, Papadopoulos had extensive contacts with people who he knew were connected to the Russian government.
NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us from the White House to discuss the Trump administration's reaction to all of this Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: These are two very different legal actions. Let's start with Manafort and Gates. What's the White House saying about those charges?
LIASSON: This morning the president tweeted, quote, "sorry, but this is years ago before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign." And the president added in all caps, no collusion. So the White House is trying to downplay Manafort's role. Today Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Manafort was hired to handle the delegate process. He was dismissed not too long after that. Of course he did have the title of campaign chairman. She also downplayed the importance of Manafort's indictment. Here's what she said.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Today's announcement has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president's campaign or campaign activity.
LIASSON: Now, Jay Sekulow, the president's outside attorney, told me the same thing almost word for word. So this is a case where the White House message is very coordinated and very careful. So the White House is trying to brush it off, minimize it certainly as a threat to the president himself.
SHAPIRO: If that's the story with Manafort and Gates, what about Papadopoulos, who, according to court documents, had contacts with people who he knew were connected to the Russian government while Papadopoulos was working for the Trump campaign?
LIASSON: That's right. The White House again is trying to minimize Papadopoulos' connection to the campaign, calling him a low-level volunteer. Sarah Sanders said what Papadopoulos pled guilty to is lying to the FBI. He didn't plead about any activity he performed on behalf of the campaign. But what he pleaded guilty to lying about was activity he performed for the campaign, and that's specifically his effort to set up meetings between the campaign and Russian officials who were promising thousands of emails they said had dirt on Hillary Clinton. So this is the first concrete connection between the Trump campaign and the Russian attempt to influence the election.
SHAPIRO: Some people have been wringing their hands that President Trump could possibly fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel - any likelihood of that happening?
LIASSON: White House says he has no plans to fire Mueller. He hasn't discussed pardons. But in the recent weeks, the president and his allies and conservative media have been extremely aggressive in their attacks on Mueller, trying to undercut his credibility, Wall Street Journal even calling on Mueller to resign. So firing Mueller is still an open question.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks a lot.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.