As Donald Trump began to speak Tuesday evening at a political rally in West Virginia, there was a problem with his microphone. In a way, it was a fitting moment near the end of a very rough day for the president.
Trump lost Tuesday on optics alone. And the fallout from two dramatic court scenes could deliver him legal and political headaches — though he has a certain Teflon quality that allows him to absorb negative developments and retain support of around 40 percent of the U.S. electorate.
About two hours before Trump departed the White House for the Charleston rally, news broke that Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney and fixer, would plead guilty to multiple campaign finance, bank fraud and tax fraud charges. That came just before the president’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was found guilty on eight counts of tax evasion and bank fraud by a jury in Virginia. Manafort faces up to 80 years in prison.
The president resisted any urge he might have had to bring up his two former aides during the rally, which was ostensibly to give a boost to West Virginia state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III. The rally featured the president’s usually animated campaign style and his typical listing of what he views as his biggest feats, including the state of the economy.
He warned the audience that Democrats want to strip their rights to own guns, and he warned that party wants to make the entire country one large sanctuary for undocumented migrants. And he took thinly veiled shots at Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for his vote against a GOP health overhaul bill, as well as ones at other Republican senators who have criticized him, boasting about “what I’ve done to their careers.”
He also claimed his southern border wall project is “moving along very nicely,” and worked in a mention of his proposal to create a “Space Force” within the Defense Department.
He spent ample time criticizing Manchin. “I like Joe,” Trump said of Manchin. “But Joe just doesn’t vote for us,” he added, also knocking the senator’s policy stances on issues like health care and painted him as controlled by Democratic leaders. There was even a moment of emoting from behind the presidential podium.
“I love you, Mr. President,” Morrisey declared, glancing at Trump before vowing, if elected, to be a “strong ally.”
But there were no utterances of two words that made Trump’s Tuesday so potentially damaging: Cohen. Manafort.
The Cohen hearing culminated several weeks of a public spat between the president and the Cohen camp, and amounted to an official severing of a decades-old relationship.
“Not a good day for the president. It may be that there is a likelihood that Cohen wishes to cooperate,” said Richard Serafini, a former Justice Department attorney, referring to the Justice Department’s Russia election meddling probe.
“The conviction of Paul Manafort on multiple felony charges of bank and tax fraud marks a major turning point in the special counsel’s ongoing investigation,” said House Intelligence ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif. What’s more, Schiff said the Manafort ruling “shows again that the president’s campaign was populated by individuals with a history of unscrupulous and dishonest business dealings and concerning ties to overseas interests.”
Schiff succinctly expressed just why Tuesday was such a rough day for Trump, saying the two legal developments “dramatically increase the likelihood that both men cooperate with the government.”
Moments after he landed in West Virginia, Trump called the Manafort decision “a very sad thing.” But he, apparently sensing the potential ramifications of the day, also tried to put distance between himself and the actions for which Manafort was convicted.
“Doesn’t involve me,” Trump told reporters. “This has nothing to do what they started out, looking for Russians involved in our campaign. There were none.”
The president also called Manafort “a good man.” Legal experts and Trump critics have interpreted his previous positive comments about former aides now in legal trouble as signals he will pardon them, if convicted, so long as they do not cooperate with federal investigators.
As Air Force One was heading to the Mountain State, Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer sent warning shot, saying Trump “better not” talk about pardoning Cohen or Manafort during the rally.
For once, the president took his fellow New Yorker’s advice — he opted against making a bad day worse.
And if all of that wasn’t enough, Trump’s hand-picked top economic adviser, Lawrence Kudlow, reportedly hosted a publisher of white nationalist views at his home. Then his mission to help House Republicans retain control of that chamber took a big hit when Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife were indicted for allegedly misusing campaign dollars.
“I think the Republicans just lost another House seat,” said California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman told Roll Call. “Surely the voters of San Diego is not going to elect a crook who’s been indicted.”
Hunter was one of the first lawmakers to embrace Trump’s presidential bid.
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Niels Lesniewski, Bridget Bowman and Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.