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Sweet: Leaving Trump, Manafort may avoid becoming campaign issue

President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a former business associate, Rick Gates, were indicted Monday on charges of conspiracy against the United States, money laundering and several other financial charges. | AP file photo

WASHINGTON — Paul Manafort, who stepped down as GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign chair on Friday, is the subject of increasing investigative scrutiny over his pro-Russia Ukraine ties.

Manafort may well have had to depart even if the Trump campaign was running smoothly — there was a shakeup Wednesday — because Hillary Clinton and her Democratic allies have already seized on Trump’s perceived coziness with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Manafort’s Ukraine clients.

Manafort’s Ukraine business ties with pro-Russian factions and Ukraine former president Viktor Yanukovych have been the subject in the past days of investigative stories by the New York Times, Associated Press, POLITICO and Washington Post.

Had Manafort stayed with the campaign, his ethics and business dealings would become major campaign issues and make it harder for Trump and his team to focus on Clinton’s vulnerabilities concerning donations to the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative and her use of private e-mail servers while Secretary of State.

On Wednesday, Trump named a new CEO, Breitbart News Executive Stephen Bannon, and a new campaign manager, pollster Kellyanne Conway. It was his third change at the top since launching his presidential bid more than year ago. The switch comes as Trump is running far behind Clinton in polls, with prospects slipping away for winning the key battleground states he needs to reach the 270 electoral votes it takes to win the White House.

Usually major personnel changes are done in one sweep in order to put a lid on negative stories about chaos in a campaign. That Manafort, even in a diminished role, was kept on the team until Friday suggests it took a few days to clarify that his presence would continue to be an ongoing distraction.

Friday morning, before Trump flew to Louisiana to inspect flood damage, he issued this statement: “I am very appreciative for his great work in helping to get us where we are today and in particular his work guiding us through the delegate and convention process. Paul is a true professional and I wish him the greatest success.”

Conway was blunt in an interview with WABC radio host Rita Cosby: “He was asked and he indeed tendered his resignation today,” Buzzfeed reported Conway as saying. “Mr. Trump accepted his resignation and wished him well and thanked him for his service. I think it’s as simple as that.”

Trump’s three children play influential roles in his campaign. Eric Trump, in an interview with FOX News Channel’s Sunday Morning Futures host Maria Bartiromo on Friday, said the spotlight on Manafort figured in his resignation.

“I think my father didn’t want to be, you know, distracted by you know whatever things Paul was dealing with,” Eric Trump said. “You know, Paul was amazing. He helped us get through the primary process, he helped us get through the convention, he did a great job with the delegates, and you know now you look at Kellyanne and some of the other people that we’re bringing in and they’re absolutely fantastic.”

Clinton campaign manger Robby Mook pounced, saying Manafort’s resignation “is a clear admission that the disturbing connections between” Trump’s team and “pro-Kremlin elements in Russia and Ukraine are untenable. But this is not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. You can get rid of Manafort, but that doesn’t end the odd ‘bromance’ Trump has with Putin.”

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, told me Manafort leaving the Trump campaign on Friday was a “positive.” Manafort deserves credit for making needed important campaign changes, Schlapp said, but “this is go time. … This is the last three months.”

Trump knows what he is doing is “not working,” Schlapp added, and he needs his “very best team on the field.”

Ukrainian journalist and member of parliament Serhiy Leshchenko points to a monitor displaying a page of an accounting book of the party of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych with the signings of payments to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign
Ukrainian journalist and member of parliament Serhiy Leshchenko points to a monitor displaying a page of an accounting book of the party of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych with the signings of payments to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The Ukrainian authorities have released line-item entries of payments worth million of dollars that Manafort allegedly received from the now-ousted Russian-backed leaders in Kiev. / Sergei Supinsk/AFP/Getty Images