Everybody is having a grand old time with Rudy Giuliani’s buffoonish new comments on CNN about President Trump and “collusion” with Russia. But beyond the obvious comic relief here, Giuliani’s appearance potentially signals two important things: First, serious worry about Trump’s vulnerability; and second, the beginnings of an endgame to save him.
In an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Wednesday night, Giuliani was pressed on the news that former campaign chairman Paul Manafort allegedly shared polling data with an operative tied to Russian intelligence. Cuomo noted that there is already ample evidence that Trump campaign members committed “collusion” with Russian efforts to sabotage the election on Trump’s behalf.
“I never said there was no collusion between the campaign, or between people in the campaign,” Giuliani responded. “I said the president of the United States. There is not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you could commit here: conspiring with the Russians to hack the DNC.”
“The president did not collude with the Russians,” Giuliani continued. He then said, preposterously, that Trump has not actually claimed that “nobody” on his campaign conspired with Russia. Trump has, of course, said “NO COLLUSION” countless times.
Indeed, Trump’s team has repeatedly said the campaign did not conspire with Russia, or has dramatically downplayed the meaning of it, as Aaron Blake’s timeline shows. So this is a real shift: Giuliani now acknowledges that it’s perfectly possible members of Trump’s campaign did engage in conspiracy.
An admission of vulnerability
Former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal told me that this appears to be a tacit admission of serious vulnerability — as well as an effort to lay the groundwork for a last-ditch defense of Trump, should more come out. It also makes the nonstop claims that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is leading a “witch hunt” look ridiculous.
“They’ve been saying for two years that this is a witch hunt,” Katyal told me. “As a lawyer, given the recent revelations, Giuliani now has to pivot and outline the next line of defense.”
“This is straight out of the organized-crime playbook,” Katyal continued. “The boss says, 'There was no conspiracy.’ Then prosecutors prove there was a conspiracy between your subordinates and a criminal organization. Then the defense shifts to, ‘Okay, there was a conspiracy, but the boss didn’t know anything about it.’”
To be clear, we’re presuming here that Giuliani said these things for a reason. We can’t know this — he is prone to strange and inexplicable outbursts — but if he did, it points to an endgame that Giuliani may be mulling for Trump.
Bob Bauer, the White House counsel under former president Barack Obama, told me that Giuliani “must have some continuing hope” that Mueller cannot prove Trump knew about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, which Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Manafort attended in the expectation of gaining dirt on Hillary Clinton produced by the Russian government.
In recent days, new revelations have surfaced. We have learned that after Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, the FBI launched a separate investigation into whether Trump was actively working on behalf of Russian interests. We now know Trump went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even shielding them from his own top advisers.
We have also learned that Mueller is closely scrutinizing whether Trump was directly informed by longtime adviser Roger Stone of the latter’s advance knowledge of a coming dump of Russian-hacked Democratic emails.
If Mueller determines that the Trump Tower meeting constituted conspiracy, or if more comes out about that meeting or about other collusion we’ve already seen, or if still other conspiring that we don’t know about yet surfaces, Trump’s team will have to build a wall between that and Trump himself — which Giuliani is now doing.
“The insulation of Trump from the campaign is meant to remove him from the circle of any illegal conspiracy,” Bauer told me, adding that Giuliani is moving “to narrow the defense against collusion by arguing that the president is not responsible for what his campaign did.”
The tip of the Mueller iceberg
But this is a weak defense. It still remains to be seen what Trump knew about all the collusion, whether or not he actively participated in it. And we still don’t know what else Mueller has established. Giuliani’s defense signals he might be worried that still more is coming.
“If you’re the head of an organization, and you’re aware that your associates are conspiring, even if you weren’t the one doing the conspiring you could face criminal liability for it,” Katyal said. “Right now we have only the tip of the iceberg from Mueller. Giuliani may be starting to float a new defense in the event that there’s more damaging information on the conspiracy front coming out.”
Giuliani’s new comments also signal the coming political defense for Trump. Whether or not Mueller ends up indicting, should he clearly establish conspiracy by members of Trump’s campaign, it could prove politically devastating. Giuliani has now signaled this is a real possibility. He is “drawing a tight line around Trump,” Bauer noted. “Since Mueller is unlikely to indict, the defense is against impeachment.”
As an afterthought, you’d think that Giuliani’s new tacit admission that Trump campaign members very well may have committed collusion would put an end to all the screams of “witch hunt.” Of course, Giuliani and Trump will continue describing the Mueller probe as just that, and the obvious absurdity of this won’t trouble Trump’s supporters in the least.
Update: Rudy Giuliani has just issued a new “clarification” of his CNN comments:
In other words, Giuliani’s position is that he has no knowledge of the collusion that has actually been established (between Russia and Trump campaign officials), but he does have knowledge of the collusion that’s fictional (between Russia and the Clinton campaign).