What was meant to be a celebratory tour of the Midwest on Thursday turned sour for President Donald Trump when he learned federal prosecutors were looking to question his company’s longtime financial boss.
Phoning his attorneys and other confidantes from behind his desk on Air Force One, Trump sought more details about what precisely the Southern District of New York wanted to know from Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer who is so close to the President he once appeared on “The Apprentice.”
For Trump, the news added another unfortunate layer to his growing frustration at the swirling legal questions now clouding both his administration and his business. Trump’s mood, people inside the White House say, has grown dark as his longtime fixer Michael Cohen executes a very public breakup. Even as he worked to exude confidence about a roaring economy and handshake deal with Europe, the encroaching troubles made for another agony-and-ecstasy week.
“They’re dying to see us make a little bit of a mistake,” Trump lamented Thursday from inside a Granite City, Illinois, steel plant, where he was hoping to exult in positive economic news in front of a supportive crowd. Aides said they organized the tour hoping to spotlight policies that have helped boost American manufacturing. Privately, some also concede getting Trump on the road is a way to distract him from the persistent drip-drip of the Russia investigation.
But even in the heartland, his mind turned again to his troubles back home. Glaring at a row of television cameras, he mimicked his media critics and flashed irritation at the spotlight that comes with his office.
“These people, they analyze every single word and they follow us,” he complained, describing an experience that every president in the age of television has endured. “The good news is: we can get the word out.”
There were some signs this week Trump is taking more seriously his aides’ longtime suggestion that he focus his message on the economy and jobs, rather than answering every question that is lobbed his way. He declined almost every shouted query this week, beyond an off-hand answer on Monday when asked if he was provoking war with Iran after an all-caps tweet.
Walking to his helicopter or sitting in the Oval Office, Trump at times appeared tempted to respond to shouts about Cohen or his on-again, off-again sequel summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But perhaps heeding calls from aides hoping to wrest control of the news cycle, he stopped short.
In an unprecedented move, White House staff barred a CNN reporter from attending an event in the Rose Garden after she questioned Trump about the Cohen matter in the Oval Office — questions that ultimately proved prescient a day later when news emerged that Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, claims Trump knew in advance of a 2016 meeting between his son and Russia-connected lawyers offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Later, a White House spokesman suggested the ban was Trump’s own doing.
“The President does feel strongly about this,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said when asked whether Trump ordered his new communications chief Bill Shine and press secretary Sarah Sanders to execute the decision. The move drew widespread outcry.
Standing in front of cameras on the South Lawn on Friday, Trump stuck to a triumphant script proclaiming new GDP numbers showing the economy growing at an annual rate of 4.1 percent and the return of apparent remains of fallen US troops from North Korea. He turned and retreated through the South Portico as reporters erupted into questions about the latest Russia development.
His longtime friend Larry Kudlow, now serving as the top White House economic adviser, said the positive economic news – paired with a preliminary agreement with the European Union to lower trade barriers – had the President in a cheery mood.
“Very positive. Upbeat. All upbeat,” was Kudlow’s description of the President’s frame of mind on Friday morning – despite a series of tweets from the President two hours earlier decrying the Russia matter and his now-estranged former attorney.
“So the Fake News doesn’t waste my time with dumb questions, NO, I did NOT know of the meeting with my son, Don jr,” he wrote. “Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam.”
The collusion matter was still on his mind hours later when he phoned his friend Sean Hannity for an impromptu radio interview and raised the issue unprompted.
“There is a lot of corruption out there but it happens to be on the other side of the ledger. If you talk about collusion, the collusion is there. There’s no question about it. But it’s with the Democrats and Russia,” he said. “All you have to do is look at what they did and how they participated with Russia. It’s a disgraceful situation.”
Trump advisers say it’s little surprise the Russia investigation, and its ancillary subplots, remains a preoccupying distraction for the President. Cohen, who for years acted as Trump’s personal attorney, has shown he’s willing to take his split with the President public in sensational fashion. That includes approving the release of an audio tape this week featuring Trump discussing a payment to a former Playboy centerfold.
Weisselberg, however, could prove even more damaging to the President. A former Trump Organization employee told CNN that Weisselberg being subpoenaed as part of the Cohen probe is the “ultimate nightmare scenario for Trump” because Weisselberg knows “anything and everything” about the finances of the Trump Organization.
“It’s getting closer and closer to his inner circle,” a Republican close to the White House said when asked about Trump’s mood. “How do you think he feels?”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.