Opinion writer

Whenever Rudolph W. Giuliani makes a new round of television appearances saying false, curious or just bizarre things in defense of his client, President Trump, some people inevitably ask why he keeps getting invited back on these programs. But there’s a great value to Giuliani’s appearances. They tell us what the president is thinking about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the Russia scandal — and what he’s afraid of.

They also serve as a kind of briefing to Trump’s supporters: Here’s the new defense of Trump’s actions, so you’d better get ready to repeat this argument, however ridiculous it might be.

This morning, Giuliani appeared on Fox & Friends and CNN’s New Day, and said some very interesting things. Let’s begin with this portion of the CNN interview, in which he was trying to argue that Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman who is about to go on trial for a panoply of crimes, barely had anything to do with the campaign or Trump himself:

Four months, they’re not going to be colluding about Russians, which I’m not even [sure] if that’s a crime, colluding about Russians. You start analyzing the crime, the hacking is the crime, the hacking is the crime. Well, the president didn’t hack! He didn’t pay them for hacking!

There’s something else important Giuliani said on CNN, but before we get to that, here’s how he reiterated the point on Fox:

I’ve been sitting here looking in the federal code trying to find “collusion” as a crime. Collusion is not a crime.

In a very strict sense, Giuliani is right that there isn’t a particular crime called “collusion.” But that’s kind of like saying that if you walked into an Apple Store, stuffed an iPhone in your pants and walked out, you’re innocent because the criminal code makes no specific reference to “stuffing an iPhone in your pants.”

Now it’s possible that Trump himself, or someone on the Trump campaign, could have “colluded” with Russia to commit an act that is not illegal and, therefore, they wouldn’t be guilty of any crime. For instance, they could have colluded to find the best taco truck in Manhattan. They could even have discussed some kind of policy initiative that they would cooperatively pursue if Trump became president. But the real problem with the “collusion is not a crime” argument is that if they cooperated to do almost anything that helped Trump in his election campaign, then it would have been illegal.

As Randall Eliason lays out here, there are multiple crimes under which any cooperation between the Russian government and the Trump campaign could potentially fall. If the campaign sought and/or received damaging information on its opponent from sources connected to the Russian government, it would almost certainly be in violation of this statute, which prohibits “a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution” from a foreign national for the purpose of a political campaign. A contribution could be money, but it could also be any other “thing of value,” and dirt on your opponent would seem to qualify. In addition to the crime of accepting the contribution, they could also be charged with conspiracy to violate election laws, or with aiding and abetting another person’s crime.

It’s important to remember that the Trump defense on Russia has gone through numerous iterations, ranging from outright lies to laughable assertions. First they said nobody on the campaign ever talked to any Russians. Then they said they may have talked to Russians but didn’t have any planned meetings. Then they said that they had a planned meeting with Russians but didn’t collude with Russians. And now they’re saying that even if they did collude with Russians, that’s okay because collusion isn’t a crime.

Giuliani said something else during his CNN interview that was somewhat convoluted and difficult to understand, but it points to what could be another serious part of this story. Host Alisyn Camerota asked him about the president knowing beforehand that his son, son-in-law and campaign chairman were about to meet with a group of Russians to get dirt on Clinton; Trump has denied he knew, while Michael Cohen says he did. Here’s part of Giuliani’s response:

GIULIANI: Lanny Davis [Cohen’s lawyer] has added that there was a meeting two days before the meeting took place, with Donald Jr., Jared, Manafort and two others, Gates and one more person.

CAMEROTA: And that’s a real meeting. You’re saying that—

GIULIANI: That’s a real meeting on another provable subject in which he did not participate.


GIULIANI: And this meeting that Cohen’s talking about took place before the meeting with the Russians. But the other thing that’s contradicted is Cohen also now says, ’cause he says too much, that two days before, he participated in a meeting with roughly the same group of people, but not the president, definitely not the president, in which they were talking about the strategy of the meeting with the Russians. The people in that meeting deny it, the people we’ve been able to interview. The people we’ve not been able to interview have never said that about that meeting.

This is somewhat hard to understand because Giuliani isn’t being particularly clear. But he seems to be saying there was some completely unrelated meeting two days before the meeting with the Russians, and Cohen is now claiming that was a meeting to strategize about the Russians. Cohen has not claimed this publicly; it sounds as though it occurred in some communication between his lawyers and the Trump legal team.

In and of itself, that meeting might not mean much. But let’s remember that two days before the meeting with the Russians, which would be June 7, 2016, is also when Trump told a crowd, “I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we’re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you’re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.” After the Russian meeting was a bust, his “major speech” laying out Clinton dirt never took place.

It’s possible on one hand that nothing happened at the June 7 meeting or, on the other hand, that the participants all agreed that Trump was being kept up to date about the whole thing. If Rick Gates (Paul Manafort’s deputy) was there, we could find out, because he’s now cooperating with the Mueller investigation.

This question does remind us that we’re talking about two separate things when we look at the Russia investigation. One is whether crimes were committed — crimes that could send people in Trump’s orbit to prison. We already know that there were crimes, because multiple former Trump aides have pleaded guilty (Gates, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos). The question is how many more crimes there were.

The second and larger question is exactly what went on in the Trump campaign and ever since, whether it involves crimes or not. For instance, lying to the public is not a crime. If it turns out that Trump did know in advance about the Russia meeting and has been lying about it all along — a possibility whose odds I’d put at about 95 percent, but you may feel differently — he won’t go to jail for it, but it should certainly be taken into account when we’re considering whether Trump should be reelected and/or whether he should be impeached. It wouldn’t be the first time Trump denied knowing about something that he was later proven to have known about.

As hard as it can be to keep up with Trump’s ever-shifting defenses of what he, his family and his aides did with Russia in 2016, we have to keep that in mind: Crimes are a key part of this story, but they’re only a part.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Why as many Democrats as possible should run for president

Paul Waldman: The fantastical tale Trump wants you to believe about collusion