IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump shows strain from scandals, but no new political strategy

Analysis: The scandals engulfing his presidency grew more intense this week, but Trump has shown no signs of developing a more sophisticated strategy to address them.
Image: Donald Trump, Melania Trump
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk to board Air Force One for a trip to Columbus, Ohio on Aug. 24, 2018, in Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — Not so long ago, President Donald Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen hadn't implicated him in federal court.

The public didn't know that close Trump associates Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of Trump's company, and David Pecker, CEO of American Media, had been given immunity to provide evidence in that case.

And Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, hadn't been convicted of eight counts of bank and tax fraud in the first of his trials.

That was Monday.

Before then, the scandals engulfing his presidency were abstract and static. Now, they are as real as the walls of an industrial-strength garbage compactor closing in on him.

Trump is showing signs of strain, but little evidence that he's developed a more sophisticated political strategy for dealing with his legal troubles.

His commentary on Twitter and in a Fox News interview this week betrayed newfound levels of nervousness that match the profound nature of his predicament: The allegations against him, and evidence supporting them, are mounting rather than fading.

And he is behaving like a kingpin watching his lieutenants turn on him to save their own skins. Instead of praising the Justice Department for helping him drain the swamp of the likes of Cohen and Manafort, Trump has praised Manafort for having "refused to break"; he blamed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not "taking control" of the agency; and his spokesman on legal matters, former federal prosecutor and mayor Rudy Giuliani, said it "almost ought to be illegal" for "flippers" like Cohen to get plea deals.

Trump even showed a bit of anxiety before Cohen and Manafort officially became felons when he suggested that his own White House counsel, Don McGahn, might be a "rat" because McGahn cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

The president is weakened enough that Sessions, who has absorbed a fusillade of Trump blows over the last 18 months, finally fought back publicly. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Trump is likely to replace Sessions after the midterm elections, but it's not clear who could win confirmation to succeed him — and an effort to sack Sessions could be taken as an effort to turn the Justice Department into an arm of Trump's political operation.

Republicans privately say they expect Trump's poll numbers — and theirs — will take a hit in the coming weeks, and some are openly concerned about the effects of the latest developments both on the GOP's midterm chances and on his viability in a 2020 re-election campaign.

They have reason to worry: An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll released Friday shows that only 38 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing as president, even though 51 percent say they approve of his handling of the economy. A bustling stock market, low unemployment and strong economic growth may not be a political silver bullet for his scandals.

The Cook Political Report shifted its assessment of two House races into more competitive territory for Democrats this week, and 65 out of 70 seats rated as at-risk of switching to the opposition are held by Republicans. Though the ratings take into account a variety of factors, they indicate that the escalation of Trump's political and legal troubles comes at a particularly bad time for the GOP.

Trump has remained calm behind the scenes, multiple sources told NBC News this week, but his hair-trigger Twitter attacks on people who appear to have put loyalty to the law or to themselves above loyalty to him — including Cohen, McGahn and Sessions — hardly suggest stoicism.

That has a tendency to keep the public focused on his fight with the nation's law enforcement apparatus, which may be an effective tactic for stirring up his base, but one that offers little hope of helping him claim new swing voters. His approval numbers with independents have been below 40 percent for all but one week this year, according to Gallup.

Of course, Trump won't be the only person keeping his scandals in the news. Manafort's second trial, the possible cooperation of Cohen with prosecutors in Washington and New York and continuing revelations from Cohen's guilty plea promise to keep them front and center for the foreseeable future.

As veterans of Washington political scandals know, legal turmoil can be politically toxic — especially when it is prolonged and when it bears fruit.

On Friday, George Conway, a Republican lawyer and frequent Trump critic who is married to White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, offered a simple analysis of the significance of the government's grant of immunity to Weisselberg to the president, who was described as "individual 1" in court documents related to Cohen's guilty plea.

"It means that Individual-1 needs a real lawyer," Conway wrote on Twitter.

And that means he'll probably need a political strategy that amounts to more than lashing out at his appointees and his enemies.

CORRECTION (Aug. 24, 2018, 6:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of a senator from South Carolina. He is Lindsey Graham, not Lindsay.