President Donald Trump and his aides moved quickly Wednesday to insulate themselves from the legal firestorm encircling the White House by writing their own version of reality and attacking anybody who contests it.
In the president’s alternate universe, the campaign violations his former attorney pleaded guilty to are “not a crime”; the hush payments meant to quiet two women’s affair allegations came to his attention only “later on”; and a jury’s guilty verdicts against his former campaign manager were the latest evidence of a rigged witch hunt.
A day after two of his former advisers were hit in the criminal proceedings, Trump is circling the wagons, showing no signs of ceding ground and relying on his favorite outlets — Twitter and Fox News — to launch a counterattack.
And all the while, White House aides insist, against all odds, that everything is just fine.
Two senior administration officials tried to make the case that it was “business as usual” at the White House on Wednesday. The president “is in a great mood,” said one of the officials, shortly after Trump sat down for an interview with Fox News.
In public, Trump allies, surrogates, and current and former White House aides dodged questions about the president’s future, while also casting the latest developments as part of the ongoing roller coaster of Trump’s White House. Downplaying the blockbuster legal developments, they argued that Tuesday was just the latest in a series of crises that all eventually blow over and never seem to hurt the president’s standing with his base.
“No one is acting like the sky is falling,” said one White House official, who described the simultaneous conviction of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the guilty plea of longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen as “just another battle that he and the staff are prepared to fight and defend.”
“This president is a fighter, and he will not be deterred,” the official added.
But in private, according to eight current and former administration officials and people close to the White House, Trump’s allies were still trying to sort through the legal implications of Cohen’s plea deal and how it could affect the president.
Some privately feared what Trump would do in the coming days under increasing pressure and with the knowledge that his former fixer had now publicly betrayed him — and they worried that Cohen’s plea would be used by Democrats to push for impeachment if they won back the House.
“He could explode,” one former administration official said.
The president was on the road Tuesday as Manafort was convicted on eight counts related to bank and tax fraud in Virginia, in a case connected to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. In New York, Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations — and told the court that he was acting at Trump’s direction when he paid off two women shortly before the 2016 election to keep them quiet about affairs they claimed to have had with his boss.
Trump opened Wednesday by tweeting an angry condemnation of Cohen — “If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” — and praising Manafort for refusing to “break” under pressure from Mueller and his team.
The missives revived speculation about whether the president, who values loyalty, will pardon his former campaign manager.
“Loyalty is definitely, definitely, definitely a big thing for him,” said former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res. “He would surround himself with incompetents as long as they are loyal.”
Manafort is facing another trial next month on several charges, including obstruction of justice and failure to register as a foreign agent. And with the midterms looming in November, a pardon seems unlikely in the short term.
But multiple former administration officials and others close to the president said they couldn’t rule out the possibility that Trump could eventually pardon Manafort, though they stressed that they didn’t expect anything imminently. One person close to the White House speculated that if Trump went through with a pardon, it wouldn’t be during his first term in office.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday that she was unaware of any discussions about a Manafort pardon, and a senior administration official had not heard Trump express any interest in pardoning Manafort.
Later, however, “Fox & Friends” anchor Ainsley Earhardt, after speaking with the president during an interview set to air in full on Thursday, said Trump was weighing the possibility of forgiving Manafort’s crimes
“He mentioned pardoning Manafort,” Earhardt told her Fox News colleague Sean Hannity on Wednesday night.
“I think he feels bad for Manafort,” she said. “They were friends. [Manafort] didn’t work for him for very long — worked for him for basically 100 days. The president didn’t know about all of this tax stuff. Of course he wouldn’t know about that.”
A Manafort pardon would be a “colossal mistake,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, who warned: “It would play into a narrative of obstruction and self-dealing.”
But the greater risk to Trump appeared to be the revelations from Cohen’s plea.
In the Fox interview, Trump claimed that he found out “later on” that Cohen made the payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
That contradicted what Cohen said as he pleaded guilty Tuesday to fraud and campaign finance violations, and also conflicted with an audiotape released last month by Cohen’s attorney in which Trump discussed one of the payments before it was made.
Trump and his aides have repeatedly made false statements about the payments. In April, the president told reporters he didn’t know about the payment to Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, and added that he also didn’t know where the money had come from.
Trump, in his interview with Fox News on Wednesday, said the money Cohen paid to the women came from him, not the campaign.
Sanders, who has previously told reporters that the president had “no knowledge” of the payments, hewed closely to the administration’s well-worn talking points during the press briefing Wednesday, declining to give substantive answers to a barrage of tough questions but repeatedly asserting Trump’s innocence, saying the president “did nothing wrong,” in nearly identical language, at least 11 times. It was only Sanders’ fifth press briefing in August.
“That’s a ridiculous accusation,” Sanders said when asked whether Trump had lied to the American people.
Throughout the day, White House officials tried to change the subject to issues they believe rally Trump’s conservative base, including the news that an immigrant was charged with murdering Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old student at the University of Iowa. The lawyer of the man accused of killing Tibbetts says he was working in the United States legally.
“Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family,” Trump said in a short video published Wednesday night on his Twitter feed. “A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her. We need the wall; we need our immigration laws changed; we need our border laws changed. We need Republicans to do it because the Democrats aren’t going to do it.”
Quint Forgey contributed to this report.