Peeling away the layers, the new frustration at the heart of President Trump’s weekend Twitter fury and legal adviser Rudolph W. Giuliani’s subsequent media talking tour seems to be that investigators have subpoenaed Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. That’s a potentially significant development, given the breadth of information Weisselberg has about how Trump’s private business has spent its money and where — information that might ultimately be of interest to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Giuliani, a former politician and a former prosecutor, knows just which red herrings to throw and where they should land to confuse the issue, and his interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan makes clear that he’d rather we believe that Trump is not concerned about Weisselberg. One of the benefits of spinning everything all the time is that you can tell the truth, and people assume it’s just more spin. In this case, though, we’re going to assume that Giuliani’s dual insistence that Weisselberg is a solid member of Team Trump (an insistence once made about former Trump attorney Michael Cohen) and that Mueller “[doesn’t] have a g–d— thing” is actually a misrepresentation of what worries Giuliani and his client.
It’s worth taking a moment to assess Giuliani’s assertions about Mueller in that Axios interview and in his performance on CNN Monday morning. Assertions such as his saying that Mueller’s investigators “chase down every alley, then they end up with nothing.”
That would come as a surprise to Boris Antonov, Dzheykhun Aslanov, Dmitriy Badin, Anna Bogacheva, Maria Bovda, Robert Bovda, Mikhail Burchik, Mikhail Bystrov, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, Irina Kaverzina, Konstantin Kilimnik, Anatoliy Kovalev, Nikolay Kozachek, Aleksandra Krylova, Aleksey Lukashev, Artem Malyshev, Paul Manafort, Sergey Mogachev, Viktor Netyksho, Aleksandr Osadchuk, George Papadopoulos, Richard Pinedo, Vadim Podkopaev, Sergey Polozov, Aleksey Potemkin, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, Alex van der Zwaan, Gleb Vasilchenko, Vladimir Venkov, Ivan Yermakov and Pavel Yershov — all of whom have either been indicted as a result of Mueller’s probe or pleaded guilty to criminal acts. Mueller’s going down a lot of alleys, and some are blind. At the end of some, though, are Russian intelligence officers or lying campaign staffers. You never know until you go down the alley.
What’s interesting here is how Giuliani has narrowed the scope of importance. All the alleys have proven fruitless, in his estimation, because Trump himself remains unindicted. Consider his case about possible “collusion” with Russia:
“Colluding about Russians — which I don’t even know if that’s a crime, colluding about Russians,” Giuliani said. “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!”
The hacking is a crime, certainly, and one for which Mueller has obtained a dozen indictments. Paying for the hacking also seems as though it would constitute a crime, though the crime itself might vary depending on who’s doing the paying. If it’s Russian President Vladimir Putin, that’s one thing. If it’s, say, someone close to Trump’s campaign, that’s another. The dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele alleges — without public proof — that campaign staff and allies were involved in that payment process. But as long as Trump didn’t pay for the hacking, it seems, Giuliani holds him in the clear.
There’s an important change that’s been made here. Over the course of the discussion about Russian interference in the 2016 election, we’ve seen the Trump team’s dismissals narrow, from a denial of contact with any Russian actor to no such known contacts to only unplanned communications to only one planned meeting that was about adoptions to one planned meeting but they didn’t use the information they were given to, okay, two planned meetings but they didn’t use the information from either.
All those excuses are about the campaign’s lack of culpability. Giuliani’s case over the past two days has largely been about Trump‘s innocence, not the campaign’s. Giuliani, of course, works for Trump, not the 2016 campaign organization. But it’s still remarkable that the case being made on Trump’s behalf (and presumably with Trump’s consent) is one that leaves open the door that others on his campaign team acted inappropriately. (To be fair, this is not an easy door to close at this point.)
What that does, though, is it raises the specter of what has repeatedly been identified as one of Trump’s main concerns about the Mueller probe: That it undermines his legitimacy as president.
Trump insists that Russian interference didn’t result in any changed votes and has decried Mueller’s investigation as a witch hunt. (Repeatedly: Friday’s tweeted assertion that the Mueller probe was a witch hunt was Trump’s 100th as president.)
Standing next to Putin earlier this month he disparaged the investigation and asserted that he won on the merits.
“There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it,” Trump said. “People are being brought out to the fore. So far, that I know, virtually none of it related to the campaign. And they’re going to have try really hard to find somebody that did relate to the campaign. That was a clean campaign. I beat Hillary Clinton easily. And frankly, we beat her — and I’m not even saying from the standpoint — we won that race. And it’s a shame that there can even be a little bit of a cloud over it.”
Trump didn’t beat Clinton easily, of course: He lost the popular vote by a wide margin and eked out an electoral college victory on the strength of 78,000 votes in three states. That’s the burr under his saddle on this issue, the idea that not only did he only barely beat Clinton, but that he may have done so thanks to a large Russian thumb on the scale, with or without his campaign’s assistance.
The pitch Giuliani is making, though, is far narrower. Trump himself did nothing wrong and so there is nothing more to say. Whether that’s true (which remains to be seen) is a far narrower assertion than the one that we would likely have heard 18 months ago.
If Giuliani’s focus is on Trump, not the campaign — and given that Trump himself was spurred to say that “virtually none” of the Mueller probe related to the campaign — it may not imperil Trump specifically. It could, however, imperil something very dear to the president: His insistence on his own exceptional campaign.
This article was corrected to clarify the genesis of the Weisselberg subpoena.