For members of President Donald Trump’s legal team, there are few good news days. Friday 18 January was one of them. That’s when special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into Russian election interference, issued a rare public statement disputing an explosive Buzzfeed investigation that alleged that Trump had directed his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.
Buzzfeed reported that Cohen had told the special counsel that the president had asked him to lie to lawmakers about his negotiations with Russian officials over the building of a Trump tower in Moscow. In response to the story, several Democrats said publicly that they considered this an impeachable offence. But, after the special counsel’s spokesman said that Buzzfeed’s reporting was “not accurate” many media organisations were quick to dismiss the story. Perhaps too quick. Buzzfeed stands by its reporting, and has pointed out that the special counsel’s press statement does not suggest the story is entirely false. It would like to know what, exactly, Mueller thinks the reporters didn’t get right.
Even so, Trump’s lawyer, pal and personal spin-doctor Rudy Giuliani might have been expected to enjoy an easy weekend in the press, a new opportunity to portray the president as the innocent victim of a biased media.
Instead, he appeared to make several bizarre and potentially damaging mistakes when speaking to reporters.
Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Giuliani said it was possible that Trump had spoken to Cohen before his testimony to Congress, adding that to do so would be “perfectly normal”. It would not.
The same day, he told the New York Times that Trump had continued negotiations over the Moscow Trump tower right up until election day, contradicting earlier accounts. Even Cohen, who now admits that he lied to Congress when he told lawmakers that he stopped working on the deal in January 2016, says that he stopped negotiating the Moscow project in June that year. Giuliani is suggesting that Trump was engaged in Russian business deals while he was publicly opposing economic sanctions on the country.
Giuliani later backtracked, saying that his comments to the Times were “hypothetical”, something that is hard to square with what he actually said to the newspaper:
The Trump Tower Moscow discussions were “going on from the day I announced to the day I won,” Mr. Giuliani quoted Mr. Trump as saying during an interview with The New York Times.
Then, in a subsequent interview with the New Yorker, Giuliani said that Trump definitely had not directed Cohen to lie, adding “I have been through all the tapes, I have been through all the texts, I have been through all the e-mails” to check.
What tapes, the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner asked.
“I shouldn’t have said tapes. They alleged there were texts and e-mails that corroborated that Cohen was saying the President told him to lie. There were no texts, there were no e-mails, and the President never told him to lie,” Giuliani replied.
Which means that having been afforded the opportunity to bash Buzzfeed non-stop, Giuliani instead seemed to add credence to the news organisation’s reporting.
It’s hardly the first time that Giuliani has been forced into embarrassing retractions, or has acted in a way that could implicate the president in potential crimes.
On top of this, on 24 January, Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis accused Giuliani of “witness tampering” because of his comments to CNN that Cohen’s father-in-law “may have ties to organised crime”. Davis has called for a criminal investigation into Giuliani.
Cohen was due to testify before Congress on 7 February but postponed his appearance in front of lawmakers, citing fears for his family. (He had now been subpoenaed and is likely to appear later in the month.) Cohen may have had other reasons for postponing his testimony, but Giuliani’s insinuations about Cohen’s father-in-law look bad, and could be construed as an attempt to obstruct justice.
So what on earth is Giuliani up to?
One theory is simply that the president’s lawyer is an idiot. Here’s how William Saletan puts it in Slate:
“If there’s a strategy in these interviews, it’s buried under layers of ineptitude. Giuliani got this job because he knew Trump, because he was willing to work for free, and because he flatters and mirrors his client. He talks too much. He disregards evidence. He hurls wild accusations. He gets lost in his own incoherence. There’s a saying among lawyers that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client. The same is true of a man who chooses to be represented by a friend who shares his defects. Trump has a fool for a lawyer, because Giuliani has a fool for a client.”
Or perhaps Giuliani is being truthful when he says he has “a strategy” for defending the president. Perhaps he believes that ultimately, his role is to serve as Trump’s PR and crisis manager rather than his legal counsel, and so he is choosing to sow confusion and gradually leak uncomfortable facts so that they don’t register as headline-grabbing news.
Giuliani, who recently asserted that “truth isn’t truth”, may also realise that for a significant proportion of voters the facts really don’t matter. Political distrust is so high and partisan divides are so wide that people will only believe the facts that support their world view. If you believe all news is fake and the Mueller inquiry is a witch-hunt, why bother to understand this intrigue over a tower in Moscow and a conversation that may or may not have happened between Trump and Cohen. Giuliani can confuse his facts, as long as he continues to assert the president’s innocence.
Or, as one expert described it to the Washington Post:
“His role is largely in the court of public opinion. Giuliani’s goal is to tell the American public that this is political, not legal. He’s succeeded in doing that with some blips along the way,” said Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law School professor and occasional Trump adviser. “His main task is to politicize legal issues. In the end, Rudy has been a major plus for Trump.”
As Jonathan Chait argues in New York magazine, this may not seem like the soundest legal strategy – but what alternatives are open to Giuliani?
It is certainly true, as a public relations strategy, that there is some gain in manipulating the media’s perception of what counts as “news.” Scandals that get broken by news outlets tend to attract far more attention than revelations offered up for attorneys for the president. Giuliani floated a highly incriminating admission, but before the media could absorb and amplify it, quickly led reporters into a surreal netherworld. Trump’s involvement in the Moscow project during the campaign is both a disclosed fact (old news!) and a charge Trump’s supporters can deny. And by the time reporters sort through the confusion and nail Giuliani down to one position, he’ll have dazzled everybody with a new confession.
Of course, he’s probably just an idiot. On the other hand, with a client facing as many points of legal vulnerability as Trump, is there really a better strategy?