Woe be unto the person who relies too heavily upon the pronouncements of President Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani. He and the president have a way of contradicting themselves, and often Giuliani doesn’t seem all that clued into exactly what his client claims.
But one answer Giuliani gave Sunday should set off blinking red lights.
In an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Giuliani was asked how long Trump knew that his then-personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, was pursuing a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen recently pleaded guilty to lying about the project having been shelved in January 2016 when, in fact, he pursued it until at least June of that year. That’s a notable distinction, because it means Cohen was pursuing it — and seeking help from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s office — all the way through the 2016 GOP primaries, even as Trump was becoming the presumptive GOP nominee.
When confronted with this timeline, Giuliani didn’t dispute that Trump knew what Cohen was doing as of the summer. But he also notably didn’t foreclose the possibility that these efforts persisted beyond June 2016 (emphasis added):
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did the president — did Donald Trump know that Michael Cohen was pursuing the Trump Tower in Moscow into the summer of 2016?
GIULIANI: According to the answer that he gave, it would have covered all the way up to — covered up to November 2016 — said he had conversations with him. But the president didn’t hide this. They know …
STEPHANOPOULOS: Earlier they had said those conversations stopped in January 2016.
GIULIANI: I don’t — I mean, the date — I mean, until you actually sit down and you look at the questions, and you go back and you look at the papers and you look at the — the — you’re not going to know what happened. That’s why — that’s why lawyers, you know, prepare for those answers.
Giuliani expounded in a later interview with CNN: “Up until November 2016, they could have had a conversation about Trump Tower Moscow, and it went nowhere."
It’s important to note, contrary to some reports, that Giuliani didn’t say the Trump Tower Moscow efforts did persist through November 2016; he’s merely saying Trump’s answer to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team about it would have been correct even if the efforts had continued. He’s saying Trump never committed to a timeline, beyond him having not pursued it after the election. He’s saying that no matter when the Moscow efforts ended before November 2016, Trump’s answer is consistent.
That’s significant, because it suggests Trump was indeed aware of these efforts persisting well past January 2016 (in case there was any doubt).
But Giuliani’s decision to even broach the potential November 2016 end date is conspicuous. It’s possible he simply doesn’t know and wants as broad a berth as possible. It’s also possible his client simply doesn’t remember the specific timeline, and it did in fact end in June 2016.
Or it could be that Giuliani is planting a seed — just as he has many times before — knowing that there is something that has yet to come out about continued Trump efforts to do business in Russia even past June 2016.
It’s worth nothing that the Cohen plea deal didn’t explicitly say the Trump Tower Moscow efforts ended in June 2016; they merely say that’s when Cohen canceled his planned trip to Russia. The criminal information document didn’t include any further events.
But that date is important. Cohen canceled that trip “on or about June 14,” which probably not coincidentally is the day The Washington Post first reported Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee. If Giuliani is hinting at something — and if the effort did persist past that date — that would mean Trump was continuing to pursue a project in Russia even as Russia’s illegal involvement in a U.S. election was coming into focus.
Again, it’s possible things did end that day and Giuliani is just being overly cautious. But he’s not the only one who has allowed for a longer timeline. Trump himself said recently that it was fair game for him to pursue business with Russia all the way through his election as president.
Here’s what Trump said Nov. 29, after Cohen’s plea deal came out:
We had a position to possibly do a deal to build a building of some kind in Moscow. I decided not to do it. The primary reason — there could have been other reasons. But the primary reason, it was very simple: I was focused on running for President.
There would be nothing wrong if I did do it. I was running my business while I was campaigning. There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business. And why should I lose lots of opportunities?
Now, here’s the thing: Even if he was right, it doesn’t matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign. I was running my business — a lot of different things — during the campaign.
So Trump has carved out the entire campaign as being fair game for trying to do business with Russia, and now so has Giuliani.
We know this is an area of interest for Mueller. The fact that he reached a guilty plea with Cohen on this specific topic was always conspicuous. And since then, Mueller’s team has laid out an entire rationale for why Cohen’s pursuit of Trump business in Russia is important.
“The fact that Cohen continued to work on the project and discuss it with [Trump] well into the campaign was material to the ongoing congressional and [special counsel] investigations, particularly because it occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election,” Mueller’s team wrote.
It’s possible Mueller’s team didn’t want to show its hand and disclose that it knows these efforts went beyond June 2016. And if those efforts did in fact go on, that’s a whole new level of problematic — both in appearances and, judging by the above quote, with Mueller.
It sounds as if Trump and Giuliani, at the very least, aren’t sure enough that the efforts did stop then.