President Trump's defense in the Russia investigation has been a study in goal-post moving — constantly watering down previous denials and raising the standard for what would constitute actual wrongdoing.
But rarely has it been so concentrated in one morning.
Trump's lawyer/spokesman Rudolph W. Giuliani appeared on Fox News's and CNN's morning shows on Monday to downplay the idea that colluding with the Russians would have even been illegal and to argue against strawmen.
The most notable portion of the interviews was when Giuliani rekindled the idea that collusion isn't even a crime. Trump's defenders have occasionally noted that the word doesn't appear in the criminal code — which is true but misleading-- but Giuliani took it a step further: He basically suggested Trump would have had to pay for Russia to interfere on his behalf.
“I don't even know if that's a crime — colluding with Russians,” Giuliani said on CNN. “Hacking is the crime. The president didn't hack. He didn't pay for the hacking.”
He added on Fox: “I have been sitting here looking in the federal code trying to find collusion as a crime. Collusion is not a crime.”
In case you forgot, Trump himself has been arguing for more than a year not that collusion wasn't a crime, but that there simply was “no collusion.” Just like Trump's legal team has taken to arguing that a president can't legally be guilty of obstructing justice, it's now arguing that the other side of the investigation that has to do with Trump — the collusion side — is also a bogus standard. Or at least that seems to be where this is headed.
Giuliani also seemed to offer a very narrow denial of what happened with the Trump Tower meeting. While discussing Michael Cohen's allegation that Trump knew about the meeting, Giuliani focused his defense on arguing not necessarily that Trump didn't know about it — but that he wasn't physically at meetings at which information from Russians was discussed. And he did it on both shows.
“Even this Russia meeting -- I'm happy to tell [Robert Mueller] he wasn't there; he wasn't at the meeting,” Giuliani said while arguing that Mueller doesn't need to interview Trump.
At other times, Giuliani appeared to say that Trump also was not present for a separate alleged meeting before the Trump Tower meeting in which the Trump Tower meeting was discussed. Cohen has reportedly indicated that others can vouch for the fact that Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting, but it's not clear he's talking about the specific meeting Giuliani is referencing.
“He did not participate in any meeting about the Russia transaction ... the president did not,” Giuliani said. “And the other people at the meeting that [Cohen] claims he had without the president about it say he was never there.”
Update: Giuliani appeared on Fox News later Monday to clarify. He said he was indeed talking about an allegation of a second, earlier meeting that hasn't been made public -- but which he heard about from talking to reporters. Asked why he was debunking an allegation that hadn't been made, Giuliani said he was merely getting ahead of the story.
He reiterated: "The president didn’t know about that meeting beforehand."
The idea that Trump wasn't in a meeting isn't the question, though. Trump has denied having knowledge of it, and Donald Trump Jr. has said under oath that his father didn't know about it.
Of course, Cohen's reported allegation has thrown all of that into doubt. The president's former lawyer says there are other people who can vouch for the fact that Trump knew about the meeting in real time. With that potentially damning revelation emerging, Giuliani seems to be guarding against the idea that Trump actually did know about the meeting — by arguing that he wasn't in the room and even that working with the Russians wouldn't be criminal.
That's a pretty remarkable distance from where all these denials began.
This post has been updated.