In the hours after two of President Trump’s former advisers delivered his administration potentially grave legal setbacks, the mood inside the White House was grim, a return to a trench-warfare mentality borne out of muscle memory. But there remained a pervasive belief, rightly or wrongly, that things have looked this bad before.
That was little consolation to advisers who admitted they had no strategy for countering the news that Mr. Trump’s former fixer, Michael D. Cohen, had admitted in federal court that Mr. Trump directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign to silence them from talking publicly about affairs they said they had with Mr. Trump. Nor was there a plan, according to interviews with half a dozen current and former aides, to put a spin on the conviction of Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, on eight counts of financial fraud.
The only option was to follow Mr. Trump’s lead. The president, returning to a well-worn tactic of scouring media reports for any opportunity that would allow him to seize the news cycle again, decided not to cancel a planned sit-down with Fox News on Wednesday.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was left to repeatedly refer to the president’s past comments on the matter.
“He did nothing wrong,” Ms. Sanders said at least three times in a briefing to reporters, a sentiment that White House employees have told themselves in private conversations. “There are no charges against him.”
But this time, advisers noticed that the president, a man who has in the past relished the idea of leading his troops into political battle, seemed subdued. He appeared to realize the serious nature of what had just taken place, and yet his relative calm — contrasted with his more typical lashing out when he is anxious — unnerved some of his aides.
“We started with collusion,” the president mused, according to several people who witnessed Mr. Trump’s somber mood. “How did we end up here?”
Well into the president’s second year, Mr. Trump’s aides have learned to weather, deflect or completely ignore developments that critics of the administration viewed as insurmountable. This spring, aides faced near constant questions about how the White House doled out security clearances. In May, the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said that Mr. Trump had reimbursed Mr. Cohen for payments to one of the women, Stephanie Clifford, a pornographic film actress, contradicting the president’s prior claim that he had no knowledge of them.
This summer, the White House has faced a self-inflicted firestorm over its immigration policies, which led to thousands of family separations at the border; questions about why Mr. Trump stood by Scott Pruitt, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who faced more than a dozen investigations into his spending and management practices before eventually resigning in July; and Mr. Trump’s cozy, widely criticized news conference with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki, Finland.
On Wednesday, several aides dismissed the news about Mr. Cohen as just another bad headline lacking the silver bullet that they say the special counsel would need to prove that the president conspired with Russian officials.
Mr. Trump spent the early hours of Wednesday tweeting — he called the convicted Mr. Manafort a “brave man” who, unlike Mr. Cohen, “refused to ‘break’” or “make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’’’ He also monitored headlines, as he did after his news conference with Mr. Putin. In the interview with Fox News, he asserted that money for the payments to the women had come not from his campaign, but from his own accounts.
“I don’t know if you know,” Mr. Trump said during the interview, “but I tweeted about the payments. But they didn’t come out of the campaign.” Campaign finance laws still prohibit Mr. Trump from making unreported payments related to the campaign, regardless of where they came from. Neither payment was disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.
On Air Force One on Tuesday night on the way back from a rally in West Virginia, Mr. Trump repeatedly minimized the news, telling aides that the legal developments were not about him, but about Mr. Manafort and Mr. Cohen. He also groused over the optics of the rally, telling a person close to him that the crowd seemed flat and that some chairs were empty.
By Wednesday, Mr. Trump’s lawyers were arguing privately that Mr. Cohen’s admission and guilty plea to violating campaign finance laws was a punch but not a knockout blow, and were assessing what options they had for fighting back. They stressed that Mr. Cohen had said repeatedly in previous accounts that Mr. Trump was not aware of his payment to Ms. Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels.
In an interview, Mr. Giuliani said that he had spoken at length with Mr. Trump, but that the president had wanted to move on from legal tangles to other topics — including the golf game that Mr. Giuliani was playing at a course in Scotland on Wednesday.
Mr. Giuliani said the two had discussed the political fallout should Mr. Trump grant a pardon to Mr. Manafort.
“Yesterday’s plea and Manafort’s conviction, none of it had to do with collusion, none of it has to do with obstruction,” Mr. Giuliani said, echoing much of what the president has said in public and in private. “He really thinks Manafort has been horribly treated.”
He added that Mr. Trump’s team was looking at the possibility of making public at least one recording of Mr. Cohen speaking to journalists about his payments to Ms. Clifford, in which he said he made the payments on his own initiative to spare the Trump family pain.
People who have known Mr. Trump for years pointed out that he has never been as cornered — or as isolated — as he is right now, and that he is at his most dangerous when he feels backed against the wall. They pointed to his reaction after the “Access Hollywood” tape of him boasting of grabbing women’s genitals was released in October 2016. Mr. Trump responded by parading Bill Clinton’s female accusers in front of Hillary Clinton at the presidential debate in St. Louis, and acted like a man with nothing to lose.
This dynamic has led Mr. Trump to publicly praise — and privately muse about pardoning — Mr. Manafort. Mr. Trump has exercised his pardon power several times since he took office, including for Joe Arpaio, the anti-immigration sheriff in Arizona, and Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative writer who was prosecuted for campaign finance violations. One official said that there was a list of people Mr. Trump has said he would like to consider for pardons or commutations, but that Mr. Manafort’s name had never been on the list.
Mr. Giuliani said in the interview that a pardon for Mr. Manafort was not under consideration.
Ms. Sanders said that, to her knowledge, Mr. Trump had not discussed the idea of pardoning Mr. Manafort. Several of Mr. Trump’s advisers said that he was uncertain about the political fallout and was not quite ready to do so.
Mr. Manafort, 69, is in the meantime facing another trial next month on seven charges, including obstruction of justice, failure to register as a foreign agent and conspiracy to launder money.