By ZEKE MILLER, CATHERINE LUCEY and JONATHAN LEMIRE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump dug in to his denials of wrongdoing as his White House struggled to manage the fallout from allegations that he orchestrated a campaign cover-up to buy the silence of two women who say they had affairs with him.
Before dawn Thursday, Trump tweeted: “NO COLLUSION – RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” — a reference to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And he accused his former lawyer Michael Cohen of “making up stories” in order to get a “great deal” from prosecutors.
The president, in a Fox & Friends interview that aired Thursday and was taped the day before, downplayed his involvement with Cohen, who worked for him for a decade, saying he was just a “part-time attorney” who had many other clients. He also suggested that Cohen’s legal trouble stemmed from his other businesses, including involvement with the New York City taxi cab industry, and that he decided to offer “lies” about Trump to reduce his own legal exposure.
“It’s called flipping and it almost should be illegal,” Trump said. “In all fairness to him, most people are going to do that.”
Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday to eight charges, including campaign finance violations that he said he carried out in coordination with Trump. Behind closed doors, Trump expressed worry and frustration that a man intimately familiar with his political, personal and business dealings for more than a decade had turned on him.
Yet his White House signaled no clear strategy for managing the fallout. At a White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted at least seven times that Trump had done nothing wrong and was not the subject of criminal charges. She referred substantive questions to the president’s personal counsel Rudy Giuliani, who was at a golf course in Scotland. Outside allies of the White House said they had received little guidance on how to respond to the events in their appearances on cable news. And it was not clear the West Wing was assembling any kind of coordinated response.
Trump himself publicly denied wrongdoing, sitting down with his favored program “Fox & Friends” for an interview set to air Thursday. In the interview, he argued, incorrectly, that the hush-money payouts weren’t “even a campaign violation” because he subsequently reimbursed Cohen for the payments personally instead of with campaign funds. Federal law restricts how much individuals can donate to a campaign, bars corporations from making direct contributions and requires the disclosure of transactions.
Cohen had said Tuesday he secretly used shell companies to make payments used to silence former Playboy model Karen McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels for the purpose of influencing the 2016 election.
Trump has insisted that he only found out about the payments after they were made, despite the release of a September 2016 taped conversation in which Trump and Cohen can be heard discussing a deal to pay McDougal for her story of a 2006 affair she says she had with Trump.
The White House denied the president had lied, with Sanders calling the assertion “ridiculous.” Yet she offered no explanation for Trump’s shifting accounts.
As Trump vented his frustration, White House aides sought to project a sense of calm. Used to the ever-present shadow of federal investigations, numbed West Wing staffers absorbed near-simultaneous announcements Tuesday of the Cohen plea deal and the conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on financial charges.
Manafort faces trial on separate charges in September in the District of Columbia that include acting as a foreign agent.
That Cohen was in trouble was no surprise — federal prosecutors raided his offices months ago — but Trump and his allies were caught off-guard when he also pleaded guilty to campaign finance crimes, which, for the first time, took the swirling criminal probes directly to the president.
Both cases resulted, at least in part, from the work of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s attempts to sway voters in the 2016 election.
Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said Wednesday that Cohen has information “that would be of interest” to the special counsel.
“There are subjects that Michael Cohen could address that would be of interest to the special counsel,” Davis said in a series of television interviews.
Trump, in turn, praised Manafort as “a brave man!” raising speculation the former campaign operative could become the recipient of a pardon. Trump told Fox that he had “great respect” for Manafort. He contended the prosecution was an overreach by the Justice Department and he revived his criticism of the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Manafort, Trump says had tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Cohen, he refused to ‘break.'” Sanders said the matter of a pardon for Manafort had not been discussed.
Among Trump allies, the back-to-back blows were a harbinger of dark days to come for the president. Democrats are eagerly anticipating gaining subpoena power over the White House — and many are openly discussing the possibility of impeaching Trump — should they retake control of the House in November’s midterm elections. And even Trump loyalists acknowledged the judicial proceedings were a blow to the GOP’s chances of retaining the majority this year.
“They have survived the Russia thing, but no one knows what’s next,” said former campaign aide Barry Bennett.
Debate swirled inside and outside the White House about next steps and how damaging the legal fallout was for the president.
Allies of the president stressed an untested legal theory that a sitting president cannot be indicted — only impeached.
Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci argued that “at the end of the day it will be up to the House and the Senate to decide on the president’s presidency.”
Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer stressed that the revelations may be sordid but do not meet the constitutional bar of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“Having an affair and lying about it with a porn star and a Playboy bunny is not impeachable,” Fleischer said, “it’s Donald Trump.”
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Chad Day, Ken Thomas and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.