AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The White House is publicly downplaying yesterday's extraordinary developments, where we saw guilty verdicts and guilty pleas for two former close associates of President Trump. But as our correspondent at the White House is hearing today, in reality there's growing concern about what all this could mean for the president. We start our coverage with NPR's Sarah McCammon. Hey, Sarah.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So tell us what Trump is saying today about Manafort and Cohen.
MCCAMMON: Well, he spoke out not long ago about Cohen specifically and insisted that Trump himself has done nothing wrong here. Cohen of course told prosecutors that the president illegally directed him to arrange payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump in an effort to avoid fallout in the 2016 election. Trump of course denies those affairs. And in an exclusive interview today with Ainsley Earhardt of Fox News, Trump contradicted Cohen. He insisted he only knew about the payments after the fact.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Later on, I knew - later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley, what he did. And they weren't taken out of campaign finance. That's a big thing. That's a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me.
MCCAMMON: In that interview airing on Fox News tomorrow, Trump insisted that because the money came from him and not the campaign, it couldn't be a campaign finance violation. But he's really missing the point here. The larger issue is whether the money was meant to influence the election because, if so, that has lots of implications for how the money is reported. And that's what got Cohen into trouble.
CHANG: And how is the White House answering questions about that larger issue, that missing point?
MCCAMMON: Well, press secretary Sarah Sanders held a briefing today, and she was asked about this. She wouldn't answer questions about the payments and basically stuck to her talking points. And she took issue with a question about whether Trump had lied to the American people months ago when he originally said that he knew nothing about those payments.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Look. Again, I think that's a ridiculous accusation. The president in this matter has done nothing wrong, and there are no charges against him.
MCCAMMON: And Sanders was asked about what the president believes should count as a campaign contribution. She declined to discuss that and said just because Cohen made a deal with prosecutors doesn't mean anything regarding the president.
CHANG: OK. So it sounds like they are trying quite hard to downplay any potential damage to the president. But behind the scenes, does it feel like a different story?
MCCAMMON: Right. A little bit. I mean, publicly they're insisting the president's done nothing wrong. He continues to call the Russia investigation a witch hunt. A White House source acknowledged to me the president is frustrated with the investigation, as he's said publicly. But overall, they're projecting a belief that the Russia investigation is unfairly targeting him and people close to him.
Privately, though, I'm hearing from sources close to the White House that there is real concern, or at least a sense that there should be. And I would expect at least some Republicans to make this an issue heading into the November midterms. Some of them will try to make the case that voting for Democrats is voting essentially to impeach the president.
CHANG: Now, this morning the president tweeted praise for former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. He said he felt very badly for his conviction yesterday. Are there any signals yet that President Trump could be considering a pardon for Manafort?
MCCAMMON: The White House is being careful about this. You're right. The president expressed sympathy for Manafort and his family after those felony convictions, tweeted that he has such respect for a brave man. So far the White House, though, isn't saying a lot about a possible pardon for Manafort. Sarah Sanders was asked about it today. She said she hadn't been aware of any discussion so far about that. But she also did not come out definitively and say, no pardon for Manafort. So we'll see.
CHANG: We'll see. NPR's Sarah McCammon at the White House. Thanks, Sarah.
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