WASHINGTON – Anxiety and uncertainty.
Those are familiar feelings for aides to Donald Trump, a president who seems to relish combat and controversy and whose inner circle has been increasingly rocked by revelations stemming from federal investigations.
This week, White House staff members experienced a new level of turbulence after a guilty verdict was announced for Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman, while in a separate case, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
In interviews with a half-dozen Trump aides and people close to the White House, many described rising concerns about federal inquiries underway, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
"I think people are genuinely shaken," said one official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. "They're still trying to digest it – process it."
In the latest sign of the potential dangers for Trump and those close to him, The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair reported Thursday that David Pecker, CEO of American Media Inc., had been granted immunity by federal prosecutors in a deal in which he has been discussing Trump's role in hush agreements ahead of the 2016 election to women who said they had sexual encounters with the president.
Pecker, a close Trump ally, has been accused of helping silence negative stories about the president, including purchasing the rights to stories, then quashing them in a practice known as "catch and kill."
As the developments unfolded this week, television screens in the West Wing played cable television programs dominated by the news about Manafort, Cohen and the Mueller investigation. Aides sought to go about their business, focusing on tasks such as planning Wednesday’s Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room and the effort to shepherd through the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Trump himself went on the attack.
"I've always had controversy in my life and I've always succeeded," Trump said in a Fox & Friends interview broadcast Thursday. "I've always won."
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The president also has been tweeting, denying wrongdoing and attacking Cohen. In one post, Trump praised Manafort because, unlike Cohen, "he refused to 'break' " to prosecutors and "make up stories in order to get a 'deal.' "
He has also lashed out at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the investigation of Russian election interference, which paved the way for Mueller’s appointment.
Of the two bombshells that dropped this week – the Manafort guilty verdict and the Cohen guilty plea – aides said their biggest concern right now was about Cohen and his claim that the president directed him to pay the women to buy their silence. Prosecutors say the payments violated campaign finance laws because they were made to prevent information from coming out that could have damaged Trump’s campaign.
Throughout the course of Manafort's trial, aides said they more or less expected Trump's former campaign chairman to be convicted on financial fraud charges. As they did so, they echoed Trump's claims that charges against Manafort stemmed from long-ago allegations and had nothing to do with the president’s campaign or Russians who sought to influence the race in Trump’s favor.
One concern of aides is the suggestion by Cohen's attorney that his client is eager to provide information about Trump and Russia to Mueller. Cohen is a longtime associate of the president who had long been known as his “fixer.”
In a somber yet tense briefing with reporters on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to get into the "back and forth" on the Cohen and Mueller investigations and repeatedly said Trump "did nothing wrong." At one point she said, "Just because Michael Cohen made a plea deal doesn’t mean that implicates the president in anything."
Disputing the idea that the administration needs to make changes to meet its new legal challenges, Sanders said Trump and his team would "continue to focus on the things Americans care about," particularly the economy,
Longtime allies said Trump and the staff were holding up well.
"It's a huge distraction to many in the media," said Boris Epshteyn, a former White House aide who is now chief political analyst for Sinclair Broadcast Group. "But it's not a huge distraction to the president and his staff, who continue to work very hard for the American people."
Some aides predicted that Trump will be increasingly aggressive as the investigations roll on into the fall, along with high-stakes political campaigns for control of Congress.
Echoing those feelings, former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo said Cohen is not a trustworthy witness and the president should continue to speak out against him.
Caputo also said the legal actions against Manafort and Cohen clarify something that has been obvious for awhile: Democrats will push for impeachment, and the White House should be prepared to deal with it.
"It's very clear now – if it wasn't clear before – that the 2018 midterm elections are a referendum on the impeachment of the president of the United States," Caputo said.
Some aides to Trump noted that they have been through tense times before: the firing of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, the appointment of Mueller as special counsel that same month, Trump's tweeted admission this past May that he reimbursed Cohen for hush payments to former adult film star Stormy Daniels, and Cohen's release in July of a taped conversation with Trump.
These latest revelations? "To be honest," one official said, "it's kind of like ... whatever."