The steady erosion of President Trump's various scandal-related denials continued apace this weekend, with the return of Rudolph W. Giuliani to again wage war on the Trump team's rhetorical consistency.
Most notably, Giuliani again moved the goal posts on Trump's previous Stormy Daniels-related assurances. While Trump's team has assured us — repeatedly — Trump had no knowledge of Michael Cohen's payment beforehand, Giuliani would only say that is the case “as far as I know.” He then added a curious justification for if Trump did know beforehand. “Even if he had, that would not necessarily be anything,” Giuliani said on ABC News. “That's something you settle because you don't want your family to be embarrassed.”
In another portion of the interview, Giuliani appeared to confirm Trump had asked then-FBI Director James B. Comey to back off Michael Flynn — which Comey has alleged but Trump has denied in no uncertain terms. Here's the exchange:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How is [Comey] a good witness for the president if — if he’s saying that the president was asking him — directing him, in his words, to let the Michael Flynn investigation go?
GIULIANI: He didn’t direct him to do that. What he said to him was, 'Can you — can you --'
STEPHANOPOULOS: Comey says he took it as direction.
GIULIANI: Well that’s okay. I mean, taking it that way — I mean by that time, he had been fired. And he said a lot of other things, some of which have turned out to be untrue. The reality is as a prosecutor, I was told that many times. Can you give the man a break. Either by his lawyers, by his relatives, by friends. You take that into consideration but, you know, that doesn’t determine not going forward with it.
As Politico's Josh Gerstein noted, that flies in the face of what Trump himself said. Trump has not just denied directing Comey to back off Flynn; he has denied even hinting at it:
Q: Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn? And also, as you look back —
TRUMP: No, no. Next question.
As I noted at the top, this is merely the latest rollback of the various denials. Giuliani and Co. have also done a number on the Trump team's Russia collusion denials, gradually shifting from early denials of any contacts, to saying the meetings were not about the campaign, to saying no information was shared, to saying even if information was shared, it was not used. “If there was collusion with the Russians, they would have used it,” Giuliani said in May.
There are real questions about just how much of a method there is to this madness. Giuliani has been known to contradict himself regularly, often within the same week or day. There is certainly something to be said for him potentially just muddying the waters or potentially not getting the whole, straight story from Trump.
But there is another possibility. Perhaps Giuliani knows all of this stuff is going to come out eventually. Maybe he knows Trump's knowledge of the Daniels payment will become clear in a few months, when the Mueller report comes out. Maybe he knows Comey's account of Trump's Flynn conversation will be verified. In that case, it is best to shift from denying the events to arguing that, even if these things actually happened, they were not illegal.
That seems to be what Trump's allies are increasingly doing. Alan Dershowitz crystallized it this weekend on the same show with Giuliani. “You cannot question a president's motives when the president acts,” Dershowitz said. “If a president pardons, that's it. If a president fires, that's it. You can't go beyond an act and get into his motive or into his intent.”
But “it wasn't illegal” is a far different argument than “It didn't happen.” At the least, the Trump team's denials have been steadily revealed to suggest a coverup.