So it was Thursday morning when his interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo the night before attracted a lot of attention for again paring down what the word “collusion” means when Trump denies it. Giuliani was again forced to offer a new clarification for his words.
On Cuomo’s show, Giuliani said that “I never said there was no collusion between the campaign or between people in the campaign. ... I said the president of the United States.” The implication, clearly, was that maybe others on the campaign colluded, but not Trump. Hours later, Giuliani refined the message: “I represent only President Trump not the Trump campaign. There was no collusion by President Trump in any way, shape or form. Likewise, I have no knowledge of any collusion by any of the thousands of people who worked on the campaign.”
As our Aaron Blake ably documented, Giuliani’s original assertion to Cuomo is a remarkable revision of past claims made by Trump and his team about interactions with Russia, one that his clarification doesn’t do much to change. At first, shortly after the election, there was a sweeping denial of any contact with any Russian actor. Since then, we’ve seen repeated examples of things that could certainly constitute collusion, depending on how you want to define it: Donald Trump Jr. and others meeting with a Kremlin-linked attorney at Trump Tower; a campaign adviser traveling to Moscow and discussing the campaign with Russian officials; another adviser keeping quiet after hearing that Russia had incriminating material on Hillary Clinton; sketchy possible links between a longtime Trump adviser and the outlet that eventually dumped that material, WikiLeaks. Those are only the most clear-cut examples of Trump campaign officials interacting with Russians. There are many other murkier examples, most notably with former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, whose interactions with a former colleague linked to Russian intelligence are only beginning to come to light.
What Giuliani and others associated with Trump do is constantly alter the definition of “collusion” to adhere to Trump’s insistence that no collusion occurred, regardless of what evidence emerges. Trump himself has at times used denials of collusion within the campaign to refer only to himself, for example. He’s specifically said things like having not had any phone calls with Russia, a particularly narrow way of looking at the subject.
In that CNN interview Wednesday, in fact, Giuliani actually drew an even narrower definition of the term. Not only does a denial of collusion extend only as far as his client, but also could only be applied to one facet of Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 election.
“There is not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you could commit here, conspired with the Russians to hack the DNC,” Giuliani said at one point. Cuomo, who skillfully handled Giuliani’s various misleading assertions over the course of the interview, handled this one, too, noting that criminality wasn’t the actual bar. Giuliani retreated — but his point was obvious. Not only is collusion only specific to the president, but it probably also only applies to very specific things that Trump didn’t do.
Put another way, Giuliani and Trump are asserting the president’s innocence by cutting away all of those things identified above that an outside observer might be inclined to view as collusion, regardless of whether that collusion was illegal and regardless of Trump’s awareness of the actions.
Bear that in mind as we step back for a second to the beginning of Giuliani's interview.
Giuliani came out of the gates complaining about missing text messages between two FBI agents who’d worked on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. He quickly transitioned into another topic: an article from the Hill’s John Solomon claiming that a Justice Department official informed members of the FBI during summer 2016 that a dossier of reports compiled by a former British intelligence officer had been funded by a law firm with links to Clinton’s campaign.
This information, Giuliani claimed, was “devastating."
Why? Well, because an application for a warrant targeting one of the aforementioned campaign advisers in October 2016 (after the adviser had left the campaign) mentioned only obliquely that information from the dossier had been compiled on the dime of people doing opposition research on Trump. (Giuliani claimed to Cuomo that no mention was made of the motivation for the dossier's compilation, which wasn't true.) This, Giuliani implies, trickles back upward, tainting both the FBI's original investigation into the Trump campaign broadly and to Mueller's probe itself.
This is a nifty bit of cherry-picking to be sure. But particularly when you consider how Giuliani wants us to look at Trump's culpability. He cherry picks what he considers an incomplete attribution from a warrant filed to surveil one person who held a position distant from the core campaign team to wave away the idea that any investigation should have been undertaken. He then cherry picks a very specific untoward action — Trump coordinating with Russia on the email hacks — to define collusion, thereby waving away all of the Russian contacts that investigation has revealed.
The rest of the interview he sprinkles with other questionable assertions.
Manafort’s having given polling data to that former colleague linked to Russian intelligence? “Polling data is given to everybody,” Giuliani said, which is true only in campaigns that are indifferent about breaking campaign finance laws. Also, internal polls are “the most inaccurate stuff,” which pollsters might disagree with.
As for the collusion, “if [it] happened, it happened a long time ago,” Giuliani said, which … is true, because it would have happened during the 2016 campaign. But this is a bit like saying that the FBI shouldn’t worry about bank robberies that occurred more than two years ago.
Giuliani’s walkback of his kicking open the door to non-Trump collusion Thursday morning included another bit of misdirection.
“The only knowledge I have in this regard is the collusion of the Clinton campaign with Russia, which has so far been ignored,” Giuliani said. He means that Clinton’s campaign hired a law firm, which itself hired an opposition research firm, which then hired that British intelligence officer who talked to Russian sources about interactions with Trump, which were then reported back to the research firm and ultimately the FBI. It has not been ignored; I myself have written about the claim that this constitutes collusion.
But again, we see this narrow-to-broad double standard by Giuliani. Trump Jr. covering up a meeting with a Russian who was promising dirt on Clinton was nothing that validated Mueller’s probe, but the indirect chain articulated above is the height of problematic interactions.
As noted at the outset, Giuliani’s claims should not always be taken as inherently consistent.