U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he did not know that his former 2016 presidential campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, allegedly shared polling data with a business partner who prosecutors say had ties to Russian intelligence.
"No, I didn't know anything about it," he told reporters at the White House.
Manafort is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to conspiracy against the United States and agreeing to cooperate with U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 contest and possible collusion with Trump's campaign.
Fox New's Shepard Smith and legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano discussed the revelation with Napolitano insisting this "is a big deal" and both agreeing Mueller likely has Trump on collusion.
"This shows that Bob Mueller can demonstrate to a court, without the testimony of Paul Manafort, that the campaign had a connection to Russian intelligence and the connection involved information going from the campaign to the Russians," Napolitano said. "The question is, was this in return for a promise of something from the Russians, and did the candidate, now the president, know about it?” That would be "a conspiracy," he added, regardless of whether the Trump campaign actually got anything of value from the Russians.
"If this is collusion — though collusion isn't a crime — this would be collusion,” Smith said. "The crime is the conspiracy, the agreement," Napolitano said. "Collusion is a nonlegal term." "I know, but if there's collusion," Smith pressed, "giving stuff to the Russians about polling data ..." "Would probably fit into that kind of a category," Napolitano agreed.
But U.S. prosecutors have since accused Manafort of lying to investigators, complicating his efforts to get a reduced sentence in exchange for his cooperation.
On Tuesday, Manafort's defense lawyers inadvertently made Mueller's specific accusations public in a court filing that detailed allegations that Manafort had shared polling data and other information with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Manafort business partner who prosecutors say has ties to Russian intelligence.
Mueller's team has also charged Kilimnik with conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice.
Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion with Russia and criticized Mueller's ongoing probe as a "witch hunt." Moscow has denied it meddled in the election.
Asked if he wanted the special counsel's final report to be made public, Trump told reporters: "There's been no collusion whatsoever - we'll have to see."
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