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Trump falsely claims the judge who sentenced Manafort exonerated him on Russia collusion

Fake news.

Donald Trump, Paul Manafort, and Ivanka Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Inc.

President Donald Trump falsely claimed Friday morning that a federal judge concluded there was “NO COLLUSION” with Russia — when in fact, the judge said nothing of the kind.

The president attempted to spin comments Judge T.S. Ellis III made during a hearing on Thursday in which Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, was sentenced to 47 months in prison for tax and bank fraud charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump tweeted that both Ellis and Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, “stated loudly and for the world to hear that there was NO COLLUSION with Russia. But the Witch Hunt Hoax continues.”

But Ellis did not in fact say that. He merely said that Manafort wasn’t appearing before his court for any crimes related to collusion with Russia.

Just over an hour after his tweet, Trump falsely told reporters outside the White House that Ellis “said there was no collusion with Russia.”

“The judge — I mean, for whatever reason, I was very honored by it — also made the statement that this had nothing to do with collusion with Russia,” Trump said.

What Judge Ellis actually said

Ellis pointed out that Manafort was “not before the court for anything having to do with colluding with the Russian government.” His comments didn’t rule out that collusion happened, nor did it rule out that the Trump campaign may have been involved in potential collusion.

He was just reiterating the well-known fact that the trial he oversaw last year, which ended in Manafort’s conviction on eight counts, was about financial crimes. (Manafort was convicted of not paying taxes on millions of dollars’ worth of income he made from his work for the former government of Ukraine, of not disclosing his foreign accounts, and of defrauding banks.)

Trump also claimed “the lawyer in the Paul Manafort case” stated there was no collusion. This is a reference to Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing. Speaking outside the courthouse after his client was sentenced, Downing said “there is absolutely no evidence that Paul Manafort was involved in any collusion with any government official from Russia.”

Even beyond his representation of Manafort, Downing is hardly an independent arbiter — he has reportedly kept in close touch with Trump’s attorneys behind the scenes.

But even those comments were not as exculpatory for Manafort as Trump would have you believe.

The phrase “government official” did a lot of work in Downing’s statement, as it doesn’t rule out that Manafort colluded with Kremlin allies who were not technically government officials. For instance, in a court filing last month, the special counsel accused Manafort of sharing Trump campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime associate of his who the FBI thinks has “ties to Russian intelligence.” Kilimnik is not a “government official from Russia,” but he has ties to the Kremlin and may have brought the polling data to the attention of others who were.

Trump packed several misleading claims into a single tweet

Trump, of course, has a long history of dishonestly spinning things people say about the Russia investigation — and he did so again in this very same Friday morning tweet, when he said that “you can add” Ellis’s and Downing’s supposed no-collusion statements “to House & Senate Intelligence & Senator Burr.”

This alludes to comments Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) recently made about how “if we write a report based upon the facts that we have, then we don’t have anything that would suggest there was collusion by the Trump campaign and Russia.”

Burr has been leading the Senate’s main investigation of Russian interference with the election. But he had also served as senior national security adviser for Trump’s campaign, and previously worked with the White House to help tamp down media reports about the Trump’s campaign communications with Russia — reports that were later corroborated as more information emerged about the Trump campaign’s extensive and secretive Russia contacts.

Burr’s recent comments were also disputed somewhat by Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner (D-VA), who responded to them by saying, “Respectfully, I disagree. ... I’m not going to get into any conclusions I’ve reached because my basis of this has been that I’m not going to reach any conclusion until we finish the investigation. And we still have a number of the key witnesses to come back.”

Finally, Trump’s reference to the investigation conducted by the House Intelligence Committee doesn’t prove much, as the man who oversaw it — former House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) — has proven himself to be far more interested in exonerating Trump than he has been in getting to the bottom of the president’s relationship with Russia.

The “collusion” question remains open

In truth, the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia remains open. We know that the Trump campaign was willing to accept help offered by Russians who said they were working in concert with the Kremlin, and we know that Trump directly encouraged Russians to help him during a campaign in which he lavished praise on Putin and secretly pursued lucrative business opportunities in Russia.

Is that collusion? Depends how you define it. But in any event, we likely will be in a better position to answer the question once Mueller wraps up his investigation and submits his final report to the Department of Justice.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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