President Donald Trump spent Friday confronting the deadly landfall of Hurricane Florence — only to have that disaster eclipsed by the revelation that his former campaign manager cut a cooperation deal with special counsel Robert Mueller and that a growing #MeToo crisis is surrounding his Supreme Court nominee.
The trifecta culminated a week of the president careening from one fiasco to another, before he had fully recovered from the publication of damning excerpts from Bob Woodward’s new White House account “Fear” and an op-ed published anonymously by The New York Times claiming that senior staff are working to undermine him.
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Trump drew criticism for double fist-pumping as he greeted supporters en route to a Sept. 11 memorial in Pennsylvania. He fumed at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on Wednesday while defending his response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, amid replays of him tossing paper towels at storm victims during a visit to the island last year. On Thursday, he questioned the Maria death count, effectively minimizing the pain and suffering of millions of Americans with ties to the island — and undermining his own defense of his administration’s response.
The president remained out of sight and off Twitter for most of Friday, focusing on hurricane warnings, as aides inside the White House retrenched, telling themselves and one another that the president was being unfairly targeted by his political opponents in every instance, according to conversations with half a dozen people close to the White House, including current and former officials.
“Two things motivate almost 100 percent of his behavior: self-preservation or self-aggrandizement,” said Trump biographer Tim O’Brien. “There never is a strategy because he’s not a strategic thinker.”
With Hurricane Florence bearing down on the Carolinas, Trump canceled a pair of the midterm campaign appearances that typically lift his spirits, leaving him cloistered in the White House and fuming about the perceived injustices raining down on him.
In a Friday evening tweet, the president surfaced to double down on the Hurricane Maria death toll, quote-tweeting Fox News journalist Geraldo Rivera, who asked of conditions in Puerto Rico before the hurricane, “So when did people start dying?” He followed with several similarly framed tweets posted after 10 p.m. disputing the official death toll.
Trump also called several North Carolina officials earlier Friday, according to White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.
Trump allies, exasperated by the succession of events, said they were most concerned about the new threat to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after The New Yorker published details of claims by an unnamed woman that the judge tried to force himself on her at a party when they were both high school students, drowning out her protests by covering her mouth and turning up music.
White House aides began hearing about the allegations a week ago, according to a White House aide, but the specifics — contained in a letter sent to California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein — only landed on White House counsel Don McGahn’s desk on Thursday. Trump was briefed on the letter, and the White House made the quick decision to push back hard against the Democrats, framing the matter as a Hail Mary and purely political attack against a respected judge.
The anonymous allegation against Kavanaugh, whose team carefully scripted his reverent approach to women — including a statement describing his respect for his mother — in anticipation of efforts to paint him as a threat to the right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade, casts a shadow over the nomination ahead of the midterm election.
Hill Republicans on Friday pushed out a letter signed by 65 women who knew Kavanaugh during his high school years attesting to his good character.
White House aides expressed hope that efforts to take down Kavanaugh would ultimately backfire amid questions about Feinstein’s handling of the allegation, and they expressed optimism that he will still be confirmed. “If this stuff was credible,” one White House official told POLITICO, “the timing renders it extremely suspect and raises serious credibility questions about the nature of the release.”
People handling the Kavanaugh hearings remained confident that the allegations — which echo last-minute harassment claims lodged decades ago by Anita Hill against Justice Clarence Thomas days before his confirmation vote — would not preclude his confirmation.
People close to Trump were instead worried that it would be the guilty plea and cooperation agreement by former campaign chairman Paul Manafort that would do the most lasting damage. The plea deal on federal conspiracy charges in Washington, D.C., three weeks after his conviction on separate federal tax evasion and fraud charges in Virginia, open the door to a stunning betrayal by someone whom the president has considered pardoning, according to people familiar with Trump’s thinking — and signal that the Russia investigation is far from over.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the plea had nothing to do with the campaign. “It is totally unrelated,” she said. The White House declined to comment on the possibility of a pardon.
The president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, echoed Sanders’ words, issuing a statement saying: “Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign. The reason: The president did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth.”
But that statement was quickly corrected, with Giuliani issuing a second version dropping the assertion about Manafort’s truthfulness.
Andrew Restuccia, Eliana Johnson and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.