Trump 'calm' for now as WH allies brace for potential meltdown

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By Hallie Jackson and Kristen Welker and Geoff Bennett and Jonathan Allen and Monica Alba  with NBC News Politics
Trump is relatively calm, say aides — and they're hoping he stays that way.   -   Copyright  Mandel Ngan AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Aboard Air Force One Tuesday night, on his way to West Virginia for a political rally, President Donald Trump remained "calm" as Fox News reported on the felony convictions of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort and the guilty pleas of his former fixer Michael Cohen, according to one of multiple sources who discussed the president's state of mind with NBC News.

A second source says the president joked with aides about how the media would erroneously report his anger about the convictions, and added that — while Trump is frustrated by special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe — he's "resolved" and convinced the convictions won't change a media narrative that he believes is already against him.

"The reason nobody's reporting he was pissed is because he wasn't pissed," said a third source, who noted that the West Wing plan is to beat the hell out of the media and prosecutors — a defense by offense strategy — and point out that none of the Manafort convictions are related to his work for Trump.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that the president "knows he did nothing wrong" and is not "concerned at all" about what Cohen might tell Mueller.

But these stories of serenity clash with the explosive nature of Cohen's allegations that Trump directed him to break campaign finance law by paying hush money to alleged mistresses so that their tales wouldn't hit the press before the 2016 election and the ongoing legal troubles of Manafort. Some Republicans outside the West Wing are growing increasingly nervous that the scandal engulfing the White House could damage the party's chances in November's midterms and perhaps even the president's viability in the 2020 election.

And there is concern among Trump's advisers, said a fourth source, that he could still have an emotional meltdown over the crisis.

For now, though, Trump's aides are going about their work as usual, said a White House official. On Wednesday, for example, they helped the president prepare, as they often do, for a Fox interview. He ended the on-air back-and-forth by joking with the anchor, the official said.

"There are no normal days here," the White House official said Wednesday. "Yesterday was more abnormal than usual. But the republic is still standing."

"I am sure they are spooked. You would be spooked," Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a close Trump ally, said of the internal reaction to Cohen and Manafort. He said he is certain the president didn't commit any crimes but acknowledged the White House would prefer to be on offense politically.

"You would rather be reading about the West Virginia Senate race this morning and that kind of stuff, not this," he said.

Republicans outside the White House say this could be a political turning point for Trump and the GOP.

"Cohen's admissions are an earthquake in Trump world," Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor, told NBC News. "It gigantically complicates him running for re-election."

More immediately, said Republican strategist Alex Conant, the scandal could engulf GOP candidates as the party tries to keep control of the House and the Senate in the final weeks before voters go to the polls.

"There's no way to spin this as good news for the GOP," Conant said. "Republicans want to be talking about the economy —not Trump's legal headaches. This has the potential to further motivate Democratic voters and depress Republican turnout."

But, he added, there's a possibility that the pain will recede.

"We still have a long way to go before people head to the polls and a lot can change," he said. "If there aren't any more developments over the next 75 days, then the Cohen plea will be old news by the midterms. The real fear is that Trump seems incapable of getting a handle on his legal issues."

And Republican leaders are hopeful that Trump won't "dig the hole any deeper" by handing out pardons to Manafort or Cohen, said one senior party source. Those leaders fear such an action could lead to louder calls for impeachment, the source said.

Sanders said Wednesday that there are "no discussions" of a pardon at the White House.

In response to anxious Republicans, the White House official said "it's a mistake" to always apply standard political rules to the Trump administration.

"Everything politically involving this president is different than any other president," the official said.

Cohen's allegations are "interesting but not legally significant," said a source familiar with the matter. Even if Trump did order the payments, it's not a campaign finance violation, the source said, adding that Cohen isn't credible because his story keeps changing.

Trump's story about the payments also has changed, as he initially told reporters he knew nothing about them. Trump later tweeted that he reimbursed Cohen for money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

Since then, Cohen lawyer Lanny Davis has released a tape of Cohen discussing the payments with Trump. And on Wednesday, as he pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation, Cohen said he acted at the president's direction.

But in the Fox interview Wednesday, Trump said he only knew about the money transfers to Daniels and former Playboy model Karen MacDougal "later on."

Sanders said it was "ridiculous" to think Trump lied to the American people. But she declined to say whether the White House's position remains that Trump did not have affairs with Daniels and McDougal.

Trump reserved his own emotion for Twitter, sending four messages Wednesday morning about the convictions, one of which praised Manafort for taking a different path than Cohen.

"Unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to 'break' - make up stories in order to get a 'deal,'" Trump wrote.

With Manafort still facing another trial and Cohen apparently ready to cooperate with authorities, Trump may want to conserve his energy for the ensuing battles.

"it's like a boxing match," the source familiar with the Cohen matter said. "Sometimes you take a hit but at the end of the round you're still standing and ready for the next round to begin."