President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended hush money payments made during the 2016 campaign to silence two women who claimed affairs with him, saying the payments did not violate campaign finance laws because they were not funded by his campaign.
His attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty Tuesday to two felony campaign finance violations surrounding the payments: making an excessive campaign contribution and causing a corporation to make an unlawful contribution -- and said he knowingly violated the law at Trump's direction. Trump claimed on Wednesday he only knew of the payments to the women "later on," though he did not specify when.
"They weren't taken out of campaign finance, that's the big thing. That's a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign, they came from me," Trump said in an interview Wednesday with Fox News, referring to reimbursements his company the Trump Organization made to Cohen.
"They didn't come out of the campaign and that's big," Trump said. "It's not even a campaign violation."
Trump for the second time on Wednesday argued a campaign violation by President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign was far more serious, even though that violation involved missed reporting deadlines and involved a civil fine -- not felonies as in Cohen's case.
Larry Noble, the former counsel of the Federal Election Commission who is now senior director at the Campaign Legal Center, said Cohen's violation rose to the level of a criminal campaign finance violation because Cohen violated the law knowingly and willfully.
"What he admitted to is a crime. It's a violation of a law and he pled to a criminal violation of that law," he told CNN.
Trump awoke Wednesday facing the most legally precarious moment of his presidency as his allies began to formulate a strategy to bolster his weakened standing.
On Twitter, earlier in the day, Trump began attacking the special counsel's investigation and Cohen -- part of a plan among his allies to discredit his former attorney as a liar and a non-credible witness in the aftermath of his bombshell claim that Trump directed him to make illegal payments to women in order to maintain their silence about alleged sexual affairs.
Trump began that effort on Wednesday morning, attacking Cohen while signaling his support for his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted on eight counts of financial crimes Tuesday afternoon. The question of whether Trump will extend a presidential pardon for Manafort looms over that case; the White House has not ruled out that possibility.
"I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family," the President tweeted. "'Justice' took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to 'break' - make up stories in order to get a 'deal.' Such respect for a brave man!"
At the start of the day, Trump appeared ready to make light of his grave legal situation.
"If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don't retain the services of Michael Cohen!" he wrote on Twitter, a message that belied a dour mood and weeks-long resentment at the betrayal by his onetime fixer.
While the President was aware for weeks of the possible damage Cohen could do in his dealings with federal prosecutors, Trump did not know until Tuesday afternoon that he would be so explicitly implicated in the campaign finance charges.
Going after Cohen
Predictably, Trump's mood was grim as he traveled to and from West Virginia for a political rally on Tuesday evening. He consulted with his legal team on a response, including lead attorney Rudy Giuliani, who is overseas. The President flew with a large entourage aboard Air Force One, including two lawmakers and several aides. All watched the news happen in real time on Fox News.
One talking point already making the rounds among Trump backers: if Cohen is an admitted felon — on the campaign finance charges along with a litany of other financial crimes — why should he be trusted in his claims about the President?
"I think Michael Cohen is someone who, like Paul Manafort, had an elaborate scheme to not pay their taxes and committed a lot of financial crimes," said Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally and head of the American Conservative Union, on CNN's "New Day."
"In Cohen's case, because they had him over a barrel, because they had all these crimes that they could prosecute him for, they got him to sign a plea that was not negotiated, it was take it or leave it, and he signed it to save his own hide and get a reduced sentence," Schlapp said. "It happens in America all the time."
Cohen's attorney Lanny Davis -- who appeared on several morning news programs Wednesday -- dismissed the attacks on his client as a diversion tactic.
"When they are caught in a lie, they attack. They divert attention. They lie some more," he said on CNN.
Focus on 'collusion'
Trump and the White House will continue to argue that Russian collusion was not a part of Tuesday's legal meltdown, allies said. A set of talking points distributed by Republican leadership on Wednesday morning instructed pundits to remind interviewers "there is still no evidence of collusion" and the legal developments have "nothing to do with collusion with Russia."
Trump sought to drive home that point repeatedly on Tuesday.
"Where is the collusion? You know they're still looking for collusion," he asked during the rally in West Virginia. "Where is the collusion? Find us some collusion. We want to find the collusion."
It was his only mention of the issue during a rally that focused on trade, immigration and his economic accomplishments.
A source familiar with internal White House discussions said staffers were "stunned" and "rattled" by the day's bombshell developments. The new legal troubles will drive Trump to work harder to maintain control of the House and Senate in November, one Trump ally says, noting the impeachment implications of losing control of Congress.
On Monday, White House political advisers previewed a heavy campaign schedule for the fall, including up to 40 days of travel before November.