By Robert Costa , Reporter Josh Dawsey , White House reporter August 22
President Trump was in a foul mood on Tuesday as he boarded the short flight to his rally in West Virginia and incensed by the wall-to-wall news coverage of his former associates who were convicted in federal courts hours earlier, according to three advisers who were not authorized to speak publicly.
“Feisty,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) recalled of Trump, in an interview about her trip alongside him. “He’s a fighter, and I think he feels, at least yesterday, besieged and not too happy about it.”
Later, Trump seemed slightly deflated as he spoke to the thousands of supporters gathered before him in Charleston, the capital of a state that he won by more than 40 points, the advisers said.
“Fake news and the Russian witch hunt. We got a whole big combination,” Trump told the crowd, the closest he came to mentioning the legal cloud hanging over him during a rally that lasted more than an hour. “Where is the collusion?”
By early Wednesday, the shock of Tuesday’s legal barrage remained, but Trump did not launch a political war in turn.
The White House morphed into the uneasy eye of a political hurricane, testing Trump with each block of cable television that played out on the screens that dot the West Wing.
Images of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to tax fraud and campaign finance violations in New York, played on a loop. So did Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, who was convicted on eight of 18 tax- and bank-fraud charges in Virginia.
But at least for now, at least for a day, Trump resisted lashing out in a dramatic and public way. Instead, Wednesday was a moment for calculation and conversation, a pause for a rattled administration, according to White House officials and outside advisers familiar with the discussions. Several advisers who spoke to Trump said he seemed more frustrated than furious, more sad than screaming.
Inside Trump’s orbit, there is a debate: Some confidants see this week as an unsettling inflection point. Others see yet another round of problems that are vexing but not a danger to break Trump.
“We’ve been through everything; the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape when almost everyone walked away,” said one White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly. “This is nothing. He’s fine.”
Trump was looking for reassurances on Wednesday.
President Trump listens to a prayer after presenting Valerie Nessel, widow of Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, with the posthumous Medal of Honor for her husband on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
At a morning meeting with top advisers, Trump gathered Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine and sought out their candid take on the fallout, according to two people briefed on the discussion.
Trump was mostly calm, frequently distracted by the Cohen and Manafort cases but insisting that Democrats could overplay their hand if they seize on those issues ahead of this year’s midterm elections, the people said, adding that the advisers were eager to turn his attention elsewhere. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, told others Wednesday that Trump had withstood bigger crises.
While Trump angrily maintained in private with his aides that Cohen had betrayed him, the president stuck to gallows humor on Twitter — an attempt to shrug off the legal developments and focus on other topics, just like he did at the West Virginia rally on Tuesday, officials said.
“If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don’t retain the services of Michael Cohen!” Trump wrote.
Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani said the president was upbeat as they spoke by phone Wednesday morning. Giuliani urged calm and talked up Trump’s political standing, and the president bantered back.
“I told him, ‘We might be at the end now. He has to be winding down,’” Giuliani said in a phone interview, referring to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s federal probe, which led the prosecution of Manafort.
But the keep-calm-and-carry-on mantra was challenged by reality. Giuliani’s rosy view of Mueller’s imminent wrap-up was offered without evidence. Cohen admitted in federal court that he violated campaign finance laws and paid hush money to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump — adult-film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — at what he said was Trump’s behest.
Trump’s close-knit inner circle still plodded forward, hoping to hold together what they described as a fragile peace. They filled the president’s day with a busy schedule of friends and favorites: a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an interview with “Fox & Friends” and a Medal of Honor ceremony.
In the Fox News interview taped Wednesday morning in the White House colonnade, Trump chastised the news media and insisted that Cohen’s admitted violations were “not even a campaign violation.”
In the coming days, the goal is to “push it outside the building,” as one official said of the White House strategy. But several advisers said it would be largely impossible because of the president’s tweets and his refusal to resist commenting on Manafort or Cohen, in particular.
Trump is also frustrated that the Manafort conviction eroded his work to undercut Mueller’s probe, which he has seen as successful, two advisers said, adding that Giuliani and Trump had been increasingly optimistic that Manafort could escape the charges and deal a blow to the special counsel.
Trump’s outside legal team, which has been negotiating with Mueller about a potential presidential interview, is planning to ramp up its attacks against Cohen, in contrast to the White House’s quieter approach.
“He has no credibility,” Giuliani said of Cohen. “He has all of these audio recordings, and we believe that when people hear them, hear what he has said about these situations, then the president will be cleared.”
Giuliani’s combative style and influence with the president irritates some White House officials, who worry that he could rouse Trump’s anger about Mueller and the Justice Department and veer him off course. Trump has complained in recent days that Giuliani should have been his attorney general rather than Jeff Sessions, whom he sees as weak, officials said.
Several Trump allies said that the president’s relative calm on Wednesday was something that would probably pass soon — and they are worried about what the next stage could mean for him and Republicans.
“This Cohen stuff is an earthquake,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and Trump supporter. “Cohen is admitting that Trump told him to commit a crime. A lot of people in Trump world have been spinning and spinning. How do you spin a fact? This is a hard fact in a formal setting that is unavoidable.”
But Republican strategist Josh Holmes, who advises Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), attempted to downplay the political cost of the convictions.
“I don’t think it’s the atomic bomb that others have suggested,” he said. “I don’t think anybody who is a Trump supporter has been sitting around for the past six months banking their support on the president’s denial of his relationship with Stormy Daniels.”
Holmes said he feared, though, that Trump could lose much-needed votes in suburban swing districts. Eberhart said he feared that fewer people would want to defend Trump or work for him.
White House aides asked the Republican National Committee to write talking points for surrogates to parrot on TV. They were released Wednesday, but the airwaves, a measuring stick in Trump’s eyes, were not dominated by his supporters.
“As President Trump said, the Manafort conviction has nothing to do with Russia collusion,” the talking points read. “Regarding the Michael Cohen plea deal, the fact that a plea was entered into does not mean there was an adjudication of any campaign finance claim. This has nothing to do with collusion with Russia.”
Trump and his legal woes are unlikely to recede into the background. Republicans face 77 days of midterm campaigning that could be jolted by unwelcome legal surprises. Still, the president remains overwhelmingly popular in his own party — with an almost 90 percent approval rating. And supporters like Eberhart still support much of the president’s agenda.
“Everyone is stressed out by Trump, but they also need him,” Eberhart said.
Erica Werner contributed to this report.