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How the White House responded to Manafort charges: Hillary Clinton! No collusion! Tax reform!

Things got a little surreal at Monday’s press briefing.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed the federal charges Monday against President Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort as having “nothing” to do with the president, and minimized the role of another Trump campaign associate who has pleaded guilty as part of the Russia probe and sought to turn the blame onto Hillary Clinton.

Sanders also, much like Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill, tried to keep the attention on the GOP tax overhaul that is supposed to be introduced this week.

“Today's announcement has nothing to do with the president,” she told reporters during Monday’s press briefing. “It has nothing to do with the president's campaign or campaign activity.”

The real scandal, as usual, was the Clinton campaign, not the possible Trump-Russia collusion that special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating. (The Manafort indictment, however, was notably not directly connected to any coordination between the campaign and the Russian government.)

The Trump White House and conservative media have sought to spin the revelation that some Clinton associates may have paid for a dossier containing salacious claims about Trump into evidence that the entire Russia investigation — which is founded on much more than that dossier — is a “witch hunt.”

“There is clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding to smear the president and influence the election,” Sanders said, echoing President Trump’s own tweets over the past several days. “We have been saying from day one there is no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and nothing in the indictment changes that today.”

Sanders also sought to minimize Trump’s connection to Manafort as well as Manafort’s business associate Rick Gates, who was also charged Monday, and former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who, we learned on Monday, had pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators back in the summer.

Trump hadn’t spoken with Manafort since February, to her knowledge, Sanders said. Papadopoulos, meanwhile, had an “extremely limited” role in the campaign, though pictures have been published of Papadopoulos attending a meeting with Trump and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during the campaign.

“It was a volunteer position,” she said. “No activity was ever done in an official capacity on behalf of the campaign.”

Sanders demurred when asked if Trump would rule out firing Mueller as his investigation ramps up. Previous reports have suggested that Trump might try to oust Mueller if the probe goes in directions he doesn’t like.

“There is no intention or plan to make any changes in regards to [the] special counsel,” she said.

Instead, Sanders, much like House Speaker Paul Ryan, did her best to keep the press focused on tax reform.

“He is not worried about it distracting [from tax reform and other issues] because it is nothing to do with us,” she told reporters.

In fact, she went so far as to open the briefing with a lengthy, somewhat inscrutable fable about the complexities of the tax system and the need for reform. It was an attempt, it appears, to justify a tax plan in which the biggest windfalls would be directed to the wealthiest Americans:

I want to take a step back and explain what we want to do. This story has been floating around the internet for a while. It is important to keep in mind that the numbers are not correct. And I'm also not encouraging any drinking. I think you will enjoy it.

For our purposes, I will say reporters go out for beer. The bill for all 10 comes to $100. If these 10 reporters pay their tab every night the way we pay our taxes, it will go something like this.

The first would pay nothing, the fifth would pay $1, the sixth would pay $3, the seventh would pay $7, the eighth would pay $12, and the ninth would pay $18, and the richest would pay $59. That is what they decided to do. The 10 reporters drink in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the bar owner threw them a curveball.

“Since you are all such good customers, I am going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20. Drinks for the 10 reporters will cost just $80.”

The group wanted to still pay their bill the way we pay our taxes. The first was unaffected. They would drink for free. What about the other six? How could they divide the windfall so everyone would get their fair share? These are the reporters, and they are concerned with fairness. If they subtracted that from everybody’s share, than the fifth reporter and the sixth reporter would each end up being paid to drink beer.

So the bar owner suggested it would be fair to reduce each man's percentage. By doing that, they continued following the principle of the taxes they have been using. He proceeded to work out the amounts that each should pay. So the fifth reporter, like the first, now paid nothing. He got 100 percent savings. The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3, a 30 percent savings. The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7, a 28 percent savings. The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12, a 20 percent savings. The ninth paid now $14 [instead of] $18, which was a 22 percent savings. The 10th now paid $49 instead of $59, a 16 percent savings. Each of the six was better off than before, and the first would continue to drink for free.

Once outside the bar, the reporters compared their savings.

“I only got a dollar,” said the sixth reporter. She pointed to the 10th reporter and said he got $10. “It is unfair that he received 10 times more benefit than me. Why should he get $10 back when I only got two? The wealthy gets all the breaks.”

“Wait a minute,” yelled the first four in unison, “we didn't get anything at all. This new tax system exploits the poor.”

The nine reporters yelled at the 10th and made him feel bad. The next night, the 10th man didn't return for drinks. The nine had their beers without him. When it came time to pay the bill, they discover they no longer had enough money between them all to even cover half of the bill.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how our tax works. Taxing them too much and attack them, they might start thinking overseas where the atmosphere is friendlier.

This is a silly story, but it illustrates very important points. Our tax cuts and reforms will create a fair system that works better for everyone. It will make our country the friendliest in the world for American families trying to build a better life for their selves and their families and American companies seeking a competitive edge.

I will be happy to get that story to everyone so you can get the numbers later. I know that may be an oversimplification, but I think it paints a very good picture of the tax system.