President Donald Trump and his allies were armed with a quick response to former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s guilty verdict – it had nothing to do with Russian collusion, and nothing to do with Trump.
But Michael Cohen’s simultaneous bombshell guilty plea on Tuesday, in which he admitted paying hush money to women just before the 2016 election at Trump’s direction, pose a greater risk to the president.
“The verdict in the Manafort trial isn’t nearly as worrisome to me as the Cohen agreement and the Cohen statement,” said former Trump adviser Michael Caputo. “It’s probably the worst thing so far in this whole investigation stage of the presidency.”
One Republican lawyer close to the White House worried that Cohen – with his unique access to Trump’s history of business dealings and scandalous personal entanglements – could ultimately prove more damaging to Trump, and give Democrats fodder for impeachment if they take the House in November. “It’s the only excuse they’ll need,” the lawyer said. “And believe me, they won’t need much of an excuse.”
The sheer force of the two stories breaking within minutes of each other left an unavoidable impression that the walls are closing in on a president facing serious accusations of wrongdoing, leaving some to worry what Trump will do next.
One former administration official said there’s a “very high” likelihood that the president – who increasingly feels under attack from all sides – will do something erratic that could make an already bad situation worse.
The Manafort and Cohen news came after an already difficult week for the president, who was also grappling with a blockbuster story in The New York Times revealing that Trump’s White House counsel, Don McGahn, is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, fearing that he was being set up to take the fall for any acts of obstruction.
On Tuesday, a grand jury also indicted California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, one of Trump’s first two congressional endorsers, on charges of improperly using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses, including vacations and dental work. Earlier this month, Trump’s other earliest endorser, New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins, was charged with securities fraud. He’s pleaded not guilty.
Trump sought to minimize the impact of the negative news and cast the developments as irrelevant to his presidency, while also again questioning the web of investigations stemming from Mueller’s probe.
“This has nothing to do with Russian collusion,” Trump told reporters Tuesday on his way to an event in West Virginia. “This is a witch hunt, and it’s a disgrace.”
But nearly a dozen people close to the president, including current and former White House aides, acknowledged that Tuesday was one of the darkest days of Trump’s year and a half in office. And they worried that the revelations – even if they are unrelated to allegations of collusion with Russia – could lend new credence to the Mueller probe, even after the president’s allies spent months undercutting public faith in the investigation.
“There was political momentum building to wrap up the Mueller probe soon,” the former administration official said. “At the very least, in the short term, these two developments will pretty significantly bolster the office of the special counsel and people’s perceptions of it.”
The prospect of an impeachment attempt by Democrats has increasingly been on the mind of many in Trump’s inner circle, who have used the threat as a rallying call to rally Republican voters ahead of the midterms. Some close to the president have even argued that a partisan impeachment effort could be a good thing for Trump’s re-election prospects in 2020.
But Tuesday’s blockbuster news made the impeachment threat more real than ever. “This just underscores the importance of the midterms and keeping the house,” a Republican close to the White House said. “If Nancy Pelosi is speaker, Donald Trump will face impeachment.”
Pelosi, the House minority leader, issued a firm statement on Tuesday criticizing Trump, but she — like many other top congressional Democrats — did not mention impeachment.
“Cohen’s admission of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money ‘at the direction of the candidate’ to influence the 2016 election shows the president’s claims of ignorance to be far from accurate, and places him in even greater legal jeopardy,” Pelosi said in the statement.
Many of the president’s allies have believed in recent weeks that he was winning the public relations war against Mueller – even if they anguished in private about what the special counsel has up his sleeve. Trump’s supporters regularly point to polling showing that the majority of Americans view the investigation unfavorably, crediting Trump’s Twitter war against the probe with turning public sentiment.
“Trump has done a good job of defining and setting the political knife fight on his terms,” said former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg.
Trump, for his part, has long been shaken by Cohen’s decision to turn on him.
Cohen’s plea deal, the culmination of the slow-motion public split from his longtime patron that began with an FBI raid on his Manhattan office in April, has hit close to home for Trump. Cohen admitted on Tuesday to evading taxes and making false statements – and to making illicit campaign contributions in the form of hush-money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal to silence their claims of affairs with Trump.
Cohen, who initially claimed he paid the money using a line of credit, said in a statement to prosecutors that he paid the money at Trump’s direction. “I participated in the conduct for the purposes of influencing the election,” Cohen said in court.
For months, Trump’s allies have worried about what Cohen might fork over to Mueller. Those fears were only compounded when Cohen’s lawyer earlier this month released a tape of Trump during the campaign discussing the logistics of making payments aimed at keeping quiet allegations by McDougal that she had an affair with Trump.
“It certainly gives the Democrats, should they win the House of Representatives, a serious piece of evidence to enter into articles of impeachment,” said Mark Corallo, a former Bush administration Justice Department spokesman who served as the spokesman for the president’s personal legal team before resigning over disputes on strategy. “When you can say that the president directed someone to break the law that’s a problem. That’s a big problem.”
Cohen’s plea agreement didn’t explicitly include cooperation with authorities, but didn’t preclude eventually doing so either. Cohen and his team have repeatedly signaled publicly that he is willing to cooperate in a bid to avoid a lengthy prison sentence.
In the immediate aftermath of the Cohen and Manafort news, Trump’s White House aides largely remained silent, letting the president’s speak for himself. As Trump headed out for a rally in West Virginia, his top surrogates had yet to receive talking points on the Manafort verdict in Virginia or Cohen’s plea agreement in New York.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to answer questions, directing reporters to the president’s own comments and to Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Trump, during his brief remarks to reporters, ignored the Cohen news, focusing on Manafort. While jurors convicted Manafort on tax charges, they deadlocked on ten other counts of bank fraud.
Giuliani, who has called Cohen a liar, said in a statement: “There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against the president in the government’s charges against Mr. Cohen. It is clear that, as the prosecutor noted, Mr. Cohen’s actions reflect a pattern of lies and dishonesty over a significant period of time.”
Trump has repeatedly raged in public that the charges against Manafort were unfair, arguing the federal government treated his former campaign chairman worse than the infamous Chicago gangster Al “Scarface” Capone. Aides had planned for the president to use an exoneration to discredit the Mueller investigation.
White House staffers were quick to point out that the charges against the former campaign manager weren’t directly related to the president and the broader question of colluding with Russia. “It has nothing to do with us,” said one White House aide.
One former Trump campaign official said senior level people close to Trump weren’t worried about larger ramifications from Cohen’s plea deal, which expose him to as much as five years of jail time. “When you talk to the JV team, the young kids are more susceptible to the media narrative about it, but senior people tend to think that if Cohen made that statement in court, why wasn’t he able to get a deal?” this person said. “You have Cohen’s word against Trump’s word, but it looks like Cohen’s word does not have enough credibility to get a deal, let alone to impeach.”
Other officials described aides nudging the president’s attention toward his jam-packed midterm schedule that calls for 40 days of campaign travel, including the Tuesday night rally. A person familiar with the president’s thinking said the first round of travel will take him to Nevada, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Tennessee.
“The main strategy is making sure to minimize the amount of self-harm the president is doing to himself just because it seems like right now his tweets and his actions aren’t exactly things that would help him in a court case or investigations into his behavior,” said one former White House official.
Approaches they’ve used to persuade Trump to ignore Russia-related news stories include “getting him out to play golf or holding events that put him in a better headspace,” said the former official – including at campaign rallies.
“He’s almost like a volcano, which sometimes blows off steam without taking out the village below,” this person added. “The busier he is, the less likely he’s going to get in these moods and watch TV and get more and more angry.”
Eliana Johnson and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.