Hours after Donald Trump’s onetime personal lawyer admitted he was pushed by his client to break the law and his 2016 campaign chairman was found guilty of tax and bank fraud, the president took to the stage in West Virginia, introduced by the wistful strains of John Denver:
Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain mamma. Take me home, country roads.
Within seconds of the tune fading out, Trump was goosing the mostly white crowd by slinging mud at another America.
West Virginians are “proud of our country, proud of our history,” he said, then paused. “And unlike the NFL, you always honor and cherish our great American flag.” The crowd, thousands strong, let up a massive cheer, voicing their derision for football players’ game-day protests over racial inequality.
Yes, his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen had just confessed that Trump had him pay a porn star to keep her alleged affair with Trump quiet. And yes, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort had just been found guilty of eight counts of fraud and obstruction.
If you thought this would push Trump or his supporters to ponder whether his presidency is in jeopardy, you just haven’t been paying attention.
Rather than pulling back, Team Trump is going full-speed ahead with plans to hit the road to push Trump-anointed Republican candidates before November, the White House says.
Full-steam ahead for Trump
Trump was criticized for taking a backseat as the GOP congress tried and failed to repeal Obamacare. Former and current aides describe him as uninterested in the nitty-gritty of trade negotiations and diplomacy.
There’s one thing he both knows and enjoys—political rallies.
In the next few weeks, Trump will be traveling around the country for his Make America Great Again rallies. White House officials detailed the approach to reporters yesterday (Aug. 21) hours before the Cohen and Manafort news. He’s already done 16 events in August, and is planning rallies in 15 more states, including North and South Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Tennessee.
Overall, that would make 40 days of campaign-related travel from Aug. 1 to Election Day in November, more than George W. Bush or Barack Obama did for the midterm elections in any of their terms, said White House aide John Destefano.
“This is going to be a challenging year,” conceded Bill Stepien, White House political director. “We are fighting history,” he said, referring to the tradition of Congress swinging to the opposition party in the midterms. Success would mean bucking the historical trend and gaining seats in the House and Senate for Republicans, he said, and Trump is out there to win. Already, Trump has been the GOP’s “chief fundraiser,” Stepien said, raising $75 million of the nearly $230 million the party has socked away.
The Trump team believes that about one-third of the people who attend his rallies aren’t registered Republicans, and his goal is to turn them into Republican voters. In West Virginia, Trump exhorted the attendees: “Get your friends, your neighbors, your family members” out to vote.
Has the election strategy changed at all after the Cohen and Manafort news, Quartz asked the White House today?
“No change!” a spokeswoman responded by email.
Trump voters don’t care about Manafort or Cohen
While there are no credible polls so far on the impact from the Manafort or Cohen results, Republican strategists doing their own field studies say they’re not worried.
“The general reaction is fatigue with the never-ending investigation and what they perceive to be a partisan witch hunt,” said Constantin Querard, founder of Grassroots Partners, an Arizona-based political consultancy. “Most voters don’t care or aren’t changing their minds because of it. And if you’re campaigning for office on Manafort and Cohen instead of security, jobs, and health care, you’re missing the mark.”
Sure, some conservative political pundits like columnist Bret Stephens say Cohen’s confession means it is time for Trump to step down. But who cares?
“Other than the usual virtue-signaling from the #NeverTrump consultant class, I don’t think there’s a single voter whose vote will be affected by either of these political prosecutions,” said Dan Backer, founder of Alexandria, Virginia political law firm political.law, who represents conservative political action committees including the pro-Trump Great America PAC.
Manafort’s criminal convictions were “totally unrelated to the Trump campaign,” Backer said, and only two elements of Cohen’s plea “are even tangentially related to the president, despite the usual hysterics from the #HateTrump media.”
“If Republicans want to win this November,” he added, “they need to stop drinking the liberal media’s Kool-Aid about what people think” and focus on the economy and jobs.
What about the Christian evangelicals? Evidence suggests they “won’t waver in the face of sexual misconduct,” said Greg Carey, a professor of the New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. They stuck by the president after the Access Hollywood “grab them by the pussy” tape came out, and when the Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal affair stories first broke. “Their leaders have crafted the ‘He’s the president, not a pastor’ rationale,” Carey said.
Republicans in Congress won’t stop Trump
Republicans in Congress are resorting to a familiar pattern after Trump does something divisive, unprecedented, or unpresidential—offer strong words of concern.
“I’m not very happy about it, I’ll put it that way,” Orrin Hatch, the Utah senator, told reporters when asked about the allegations Trump pushed for payments to women to buy their silence. “It should never have happened.”
Asked whether Trump should resign if he did actually ask Cohen to violate campaign-finance laws, senator Bob Corker of Tennessee made “a little ‘eh’ noise,” Weekly Standard reporter Haley Byrd tweeted. Then Corker added, “I think I’ve said enough.”
Back in 1999, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham said ”You don’t need to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic,” referring to then-president Bill Clinton, whose impeachment he pushed. Impeachment is about “cleansing the office” of president, Graham said then.
Today, in response to Cohen’s allegations that Trump has pushed him to break the law, Graham said that the legal system was “working its will,” noting that there “have yet to be any charges or convictions for colluding with the Russian government by any member of the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.”
Which wasn’t the question.
Rather than rein Trump in, the serious nature of the charges against him has finally helped Republicans find their mid-term message, according to Breitbart, the white-supremacist-supporting conservative website once run by former White House advisor Stephen Bannon.
The message: “Vote GOP, or the Democrats impeach Trump!”
The risky calculation for Trump’s own party
Republicans are betting it all on Trump in the mid-terms.
In the first 18 months of his presidency, the number of outspoken “Never Trump” Republicans has increased. Some of them are prominent talking heads, others are less-well-known government employees upset by the chaos they encounter in their everyday lives.
The White House tends to dismiss their opinions, as they dismiss those of Democratic opponents. That means they’re taking a big chance.
Take the NFL issue Trump highlighted in West Virginia. Some 70% of Republicans do think it is unpatriotic for players to kneel during the national anthem to protest racism. But the majority of Americans, nearly 60%, don’t agree.
Under Trump, the Republican party is shrinking, through a combination of demographics and aversion to his policies. The Republicans who strongly support him make up just 19% of the US population, with Democrats who strongly dislike him a much bigger segment.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was embracing the new Republican line by this afternoon. Asked whether the Cohen and Manafort convictions would hurt Republicans in the midterms, she turned the question around.
“The thing that’s going to encourage people to turn out is the lack of a message by Democrats,” she said. “They have nothing to run on but attacking this president.”
She also repeated a couple of familiar lines: “The president did nothing wrong,” she said, and “There are no charges against him.”