When Donald Trump boarded Air Force One on his way to speak at a rally in West Virginia Tuesday night, two of his closest political advisers were facing grave legal peril. By the time he landed, both had become felons.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex–campaign chairman, was found guilty on eight counts of financial crimes by a jury in Alexandria, Virginia. Within minutes of that verdict, Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney and self-described “fixer,” pleaded guilty to his own eight counts in New York.
Tuesday’s eruption of legal carnage marks a historically bad day for the beleaguered president. And at the rally — where he was meant to be stumping for the state’s Republican candidate for Senate, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — he let the audience know just how he was taking the news.
He avoided it entirely.
Appearing relatively subdued for much of the rally, Trump stayed more or less on script. He attacked local and national Democrats as weak on immigration and crime, and urged his supporters not to take the midterm elections for granted.
And when the Russia investigation did come up, Trump pretty much just muttered the word collusion a few times, then moved on.
“Where’s the collusion?” he asked at one point before quickly pivoting back to one of his favorite campaign topics: illegal immigration and the border wall. He even joked about the size of West Virginia's governor.
But outside of his brief digression on collusion, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Manafort and Cohen barely seemed to register. It was as if Trump, a famously ravenous consumer of cable news, had tuned into another day’s lineup of broadcasts.
That afternoon, Trump’s longtime aide Cohen, in the words of his attorney Lanny Davis, had just “testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election.”
Cohen’s stark admission of wrongdoing, Davis said, should reflect on Trump.
“If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?” Davis asked.
But Trump’s audience had a different takeaway. On the day when two men who’d helped run Trump’s campaign officially became criminals, his audience called for Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, to be the one sent to jail, breaking into the old campaign chant: “Lock her up.”
Shane Taylor, 27, a computer salesman from Charleston, W.Va. shrugged off Cohen’s admission of paying money to silence Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who claims she had a sexual relationship with Trump.
“I wouldn’t blame [Trump],” Taylor said. “She’s hot, she’s a porn star — you pay your money, you do your business, you get in, you get out, it’s easy business.”
Directing his underling to make an illegal payment to a porn star isn’t the kind of thing that should bar Trump from being president of the United States, Taylor said.
“In the grand scheme of things that’s not gonna be the thing that stops you from going to sleep,” he said.
Alex Jaffe contributed reporting from Charleston, West Virginia.
Cover image: President Donald Trump pauses while speaking to the media as he steps off Air Force One, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)