First, Rudolph W. Giuliani said serious conversations about developing a Trump Tower project in Moscow occurred throughout the 2016 campaign, then he said they were hypothetical. He said they might have stretched the entire campaign, then he said they ended by “January 2016 or shortly thereafter.”
He said he had listened to recordings proving President Trump was not guilty of instructing his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, then he said that he shouldn’t have mentioned any tapes exist and that they were not pertinent.
He said it would have been “perfectly normal” for Trump to talk with Cohen before he testified on Capitol Hill in 2017 about the Moscow project, then he said he was not sure they had spoken. Then he said they had definitely not.
“I have since checked the record. The answer is, he didn’t talk to him at all,” Giuliani said of Trump in an interview Tuesday night.
These were among the dizzying array of statements and clarifications made in recent days by Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers and the public face of the president’s legal team handling the special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
The former New York mayor has left White House aides, his fellow lawyers and people involved in the special counsel’s probe puzzled over what, exactly, he was trying to say in defense of the president — and why he was saying any of it at all.
“There is a strategy,” Giuliani said. “The strategy will become apparent. There have been these objections in the past. It’s become obvious somewhat thereafter. You have to be patient.”
The strategy, it seems, was lost on his client.
Trump this week asked Giuliani to scale back his media appearances after the recent interviews, White House aides said, and complained that his lawyer did not know all the facts of the case. The president also asked Giuliani to clean up some of his misstatements publicly, complaining he created a weekend of news, including negative cable chyrons, at a time when Trump wanted public attention focused on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III disputing a BuzzFeed report that Trump had asked Cohen to lie to Congress.
The recent tensions between Trump and Giuliani highlight the unique role he plays for the president.
Even though Trump has been frustrated with Giuliani’s performance several times since he became his lawyer in April, he continues to get a longer leash than most of the president’s aides and surrogates. That’s because Giuliani, whom he considers a friend, is doing what Trump wants — serving chiefly as his public defender rather than his pragmatic legal counsel — and because the president would struggle to replace him after being turned down by several high-profile attorneys reluctant to represent the mercurial Trump.
The first lawyer who represented Trump in the Russia probe, John Dowd, quit in March over a dispute on how to best handle responding to the investigation.
For now, the two septuagenarian New Yorkers appear stuck with each other — to the chagrin of some of the president’s allies.
White House communications staffers have grown frustrated with Giuliani and privately mock some of his interviews, saying they spend more time responding to Giuliani’s answers than Giuliani does preparing to give them.
A person close to the president’s legal team said the comments were seen as “bizarre,” even by those involved in the case. A second person said the president’s other lawyers are also frustrated with Giuliani for his TV appearances and do not view him as helping the case. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Giuliani’s performance.
“Most of what he says is not consistent with the actual facts,” one of the people said. “Thinking there is a strategy would give Rudy too much credit. He doesn’t know what he is talking about.”
People familiar with the legal team say Giuliani’s public comments could hurt their standing with Mueller and prolong the probe — as the special counsel’s office investigates his various statements and contradictions.
“From a legal standpoint and a public perception standpoint in terms of trying to help your client, nothing he is doing makes any sense whatsoever,” said Ted Boutrous, a Gibson Dunn partner who regularly argues cases in front of the Supreme Court.
Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, said Giuliani remains a “valuable member” of the legal team. The president does not plan to oust Giuliani and continues to consider him a friend, according to five current and former White House aides and outside advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
Trump wants people out there “pushing back, pushing back on everything,” said a senior administration official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. The president sees much of the battle over Mueller’s investigation as a public relations fight and is often unconcerned if Giuliani’s answers are inaccurate — as long as they are delivered with confidence and don’t sow confusion.
“His role is largely in the court of public opinion. Giuliani’s goal is to tell the American public that this is political, not legal. He’s succeeded in doing that with some blips along the way,” said Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law School professor and occasional Trump adviser. “His main task is to politicize legal issues. In the end, Rudy has been a major plus for Trump.”
Trump has told advisers and other lawyers that Giuliani’s combative posture toward Mueller’s team and his refusal to answer questions from the special counsel’s office was a welcome change from the early days of the investigation, when lawyers persuaded the president to cooperate — and convinced him that the inquiry would be over soon if he did.
Giuliani has finished a report that he has shown the president, questioning the integrity of the investigation, and Trump has been impressed at its length. The two men have complained about particular members of Mueller’s team such as prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, whom they view as overly aggressive.
Many of the president’s closest aides want nothing to do with the investigation, fearful of legal fees and subpoenas. For example, former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly would often walk out of the room when the president began talking about the probe — or had a meeting scheduled with his lawyers. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has sought to avoid questions about the investigation and to have statements put in her name.
And the president’s other lawyers — Jane Raskin and Sekulow — are not regular TV personalities like Giuliani. Two people close to the president’s legal team said Raskin and Sekulow handle much of the actual interactions with Mueller and brief Giuliani later. Trump frequently commiserates with Emmet Flood and Pat Cipollone, White House lawyers focused on the Mueller investigation whom he has come to trust.
“There is an outside, inside game happening,” Dershowitz said.
Trump has told advisers that people increasingly see the probe his way, partially because of Giuliani, even though the latest Politico-Morning Consult poll shows 57 percent of Americans believe Russia has compromising information on Trump.
Giuliani is shrugging off the latest criticism of his performance, saying it’s part of the job.
“He doesn’t get upset with me,” Giuliani said in an interview. “At least I don’t think he does. My goal is to make sure nothing bad happens to him. If I get bad publicity for a day or two, so what?”
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.