Giuliani appeared on the Fox News program “Watters World” over the weekend, where he trotted out some classics of the genre.
He had three witnesses, he claimed, who would testify that in January 2016, members of President Barack Obama’s National Security Council asked for dirt on Paul Manafort, who would eventually become Trump’s campaign chairman.
In other words, Giuliani said, “members of Obama’s NSC violated the law Mueller was investigating Trump for violating.”
Well, except for a lot of things.
The witnesses he identifies as making his case include a former anti-corruption prosecutor whom the United States targeted for removal after he was caught coaching witnesses, and a former employee of Ukraine’s embassy in Washington who now helps propagate conspiracy theories. The request for information about Manafort should not have been surprising in the abstract, given that his activity had already risen to the attention of U.S. authorities. Manafort is currently in prison for having committed federal crimes, including some related to his lobbying work. He was worth looking at.
Most important, of course, Manafort didn’t work for Trump in January 2016. Manafort apparently didn’t reach out to the campaign until late February, meaning that if there was a push to investigate him in January 2016, there’s no reason at all to think it was a function of Trump.
Giuliani glosses over this inconvenient timeline by saying that the federal officials were looking for “dirty information on an American citizen who was going to be involved in a political campaign.” Clearly, “going to be” is carrying a heavy load in that sentence.
To the show’s host, Jesse Watters, Giuliani made other dubious claims. He said, for example, that the release of documents showing under-the-table payments to Manafort in August 2016 was meant to devastate Trump’s campaign. Watters, whose media diet apparently doesn’t extend outside conservative news outlets, added that the documents were “false,” a claim Giuliani has also made. They weren’t: The Associated Press confirmed some of the payments. Nor did the former member of parliament who helped publicize the documents say he wanted to “destroy Trump,” as Giuliani claimed, but instead to show that Trump was a “pro-Russian candidate” who would “change the pro-Ukrainian agenda in American foreign policy.”
Giuliani expressed some frustration to Watters.
“Look, the government has been so lax in investigating this,” he said. “It’s pathetic.”
The person who would be investigating alleged criminal activity, of course, is Attorney General William P. Barr. On Monday, Barr confirmed that an assertion made on CBS’s “Face the Nation” by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was accurate: The Justice Department has a method for taking in any evidence presented by Giuliani.
“That is true for all information that comes to the department relating to the Ukraine,” Barr said, “including anything Mr. Giuliani might provide.”
That brief statement immediately brings into focus the spectrum of information that is presented to federal investigators in any given year. There is no doubt a mountain of information and allegations presented to the FBI each day that are nonsensical, conspiratorial or otherwise garbage. There is also certainly some smaller fraction that is useful, urgent and important. There is a range between those two points, including seemingly nonsensical allegations that turn out to be valid. It’s the job of investigators to differentiate that wheat from the chaff.
Any attorney general in Barr’s position at the moment would be faced with a tricky bit of politics. You have the attorney for the president, clearly acting with Trump’s blessing, offering debunked or sketchy information that the president clearly hopes will be taken seriously. (Imagine if your boss asked you to interview her nephew for a job. A little dicey, even at that scale.) Perhaps there’s some wheat in the mix of what Giuliani’s offering — perhaps — but the public evidence suggests that what he’s got in his hands is unadulterated chaff.
For Barr himself, things are a bit trickier. He’s been looped into Giuliani’s work by the president and seemingly wants, to some extent, to backstop Trump’s political position. Does that make it more likely he’ll treat the chaff as edible, if you’ll forgive the extended metaphor?
Graham’s position is only slightly better than Barr’s from a political standpoint. He clearly wants to defend Trump’s political position and, where possible, undercut Trump’s opponents. But he readily embraced Barr’s duty to filter Giuliani, telling host Margaret Brennan that it was important that intelligence officials vet what Giuliani was passing around.
“After talking to the attorney general and the intelligence chairman, [any] documents coming out of the Ukraine against any American, Republican or Democrat, need to be looked at by the intelligence services, who has expertise I don’t because Russia is playing us all like a fiddle,” he said.
“Are you saying Rudy Giuliani is getting played by the Russians?” Brennan asked.
“I don’t know,” Graham replied.
“To every American politician,” he added a bit later, “you should be very cautious about receiving information coming out of the Ukraine and other countries that may be backed by Russian misinformation.”
“Does the president know that?” Brennan asked.
“I hope so,” Graham replied.
Barr, who unlike me is in fact the attorney general of the United States, is no doubt aware that many of Giuliani’s claims are immediately nonsensical. Unlike me, he both has to entertain even the least likely conspiracy theories broadly as part of his job and, also unlike me, to navigate a relationship with a president who gives Giuliani the benefit of the doubt.
His comments Monday seem calibrated at sending two messages. One is to Trump and his allies, that Giuliani’s work has a way into formal consideration. The other is to those who, like Graham, are skeptical: At least someone’s looking at this stuff.