Let me begin by stipulating that I have a significant soft spot for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose leadership on 9/11 was extraordinary. Growing up in the area (my father worked in lower Manhattan at the time), those terrorist attacks were a formative event in my life, and Giuliani's performance in their aftermath was exceptional.
That being said, he is now acting as President Trump's most visible personal attorney, a role that has required him in recent days to go to verbal war with Trump's longtime fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen. In that capacity, Giuliani gave two interviews this morning that caught my attention -- one on Fox & Friends and another on CNN's New Day. What struck me about those appearances were Rudy's emphasis that collusion is not a crime, as well as his apparent insistence that then-candidate Donald Trump did not attend the infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian national, which many people have pointed to as the closest thing to evidence of collusion that we've seen. I raised both red flags in tweets, as well as on Outnumbered, which I was co-hosting during the noon ET hour on Fox News:
Team Trump, forever: We absolutely did not collude with the Russians. Period, end of story.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) July 30, 2018
Rudy (twice) today: Y’know, collusion isn’t a crime...
Is he freelancing as a quasi-pundit, or is this a legal team pivot?
As I just said on Fox, in multiple interviews this morning, Rudy appeared to shift goalposts on collusion & twice denied that Trump was *at* the Trump Tower meeting...which no one is alleging.— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) July 30, 2018
If this is something other than off-the-cuff/muddled punditry, that’s worrisome.
My first point was that if the most important thing you want the American people to know is that there was no collusion, going out of your way to highlight that collusion isn't a crime at least looks a bit like a pre-emptive telegraph of the next argument you may be making on behalf of your client. It's true that collusion isn't a crime in and of itself. But Team Trump has sworn up and down forever that zero collusion ever took place, so the president's top lawyer going on multiple national television networks and emphasizing the "it's not a crime" angle seemed potentially telling. My second point was even more straightforward: Why is Rudy out there saying (more than once) that Trump wasn't at the Trump Tower/Russia meeting? We already knew that he wasn't, and literally nobody was alleging otherwise. It seemed odd, or even suspicious, for Trump's lawyer to repeatedly knock down a specific claim that nobody was actually advancing.
Was that a diversionary tactic to turn the conversation away from the issue of whether Trump knew about said meeting in advance? After all, Trump has denied this repeatedly, but Michael Cohen is reportedly prepared to tell Robert Mueller's team that he witnessed a conversation between Trump and his oldest son (hotly and categorically rejected by Rudy & Co) that contradicts those repeated denials. After I made both of these points on the air, Giuliani called into the show for a surprise, live, 25-minute conversation to "correct" and clarify some of his previous remarks.
Giuliani reaffirmed his client's full denial of campaign collusion (later adding that he was referring to the Trump campaign's upper echelon, holding open the possibly that lower-level staffers or representatives may have been involved in untoward communications with operatives of the Russian government). He said it's a common attorney tactic to effectively say, 'my client is innocent, but even if he did what he's accused of, it's not a crime.' He also reiterated that candidate Trump did not know about the Trump Tower/Russian lawyer huddle before it occurred. More interestingly, Rudy said that his multiple denials about Trump's attendance at the Trump Tower meeting were actually referencing a separate 'planning' meeting (alleged by Cohen and supposedly featuring top campaign officials), about which the general public hadn't heard about until Rudy obliquely raised it on CNN this morning. But wait, Rudy then told us that this 'planning' meeting...never took place at all:
Rudy: Take Two! I Meant to Say The Pre-Planning Meeting Did NOT Happen. pic.twitter.com/Zg87XYkwmG— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) July 30, 2018
All of this was (a) news to all of us hosting the show, and (b) still quite confusing:
We drilled down, asking why he’d insist Trump wasn’t at a meeting nobody ever claimed Trump had attended. Rudy said he was referring to a SECOND meeting Cohen will/is alleging. Rudy says that meeting never happened. So why not just say that, rather than deny Trump’s attendance? https://t.co/9nvTtfKG7S— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) July 30, 2018
Mediaite refers to our reaction to all of this as "baffled," which is more or less accurate. Think of it this way: Even if your aim is to get out in front of an upcoming accusation from Cohen (or emerging from his tapes) pertaining to a second meeting set up to plan the known Trump Tower meeting, why would you frame your denial the way Rudy did? Rather than saying, "Trump wasn't at the meeting," leaving everyone to assume you're talking about the previously-known event, why wouldn't you say, "by the way, if you start to hear from this sketchy liar Michael Cohen about some other 'planning' meeting before the Russian lawyer came to Trump Tower, not only wasn't Trump there, it didn't even happen." But between those two options, Rudy went with Door Number One in multiple interviews this morning, then joined us on Outnumbered for a mop-up job, offering a brand new explanation.
If you find all of this blindingly confusing and hard to follow, join the club. A lot of people are saying that Rudy is failing his boss as an attorney by issuing erratic and contradictory commentary all over television. But there's a competing theory floating around that Rudy is flooding the zone with all sorts of information, then following-up with "clarifications," as a deliberate strategy to muddy the waters and befuddle even those of us who keep tabs on this whole story relatively closely. I'll leave you with this issue to chew on, based on Rudy's CNN interview earlier, via lefty blogger Josh Marshall:
I don’t think I’d ever heard of this planning meeting. If nothing else, it suggests that the Trump team took the planned encounter with the Russian government emissary much more seriously than they’ve suggested to date. And then there’s Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy. As we know, Gates is now a cooperating witness. Big problem for the Trump Team, if he was at such a planning meeting...The other point is the date: June 7th. That’s the date when Trump made that primary election night victory speech where he teased his upcoming anti-Hillary speech where he’d reveal a bunch of new dirt on Hillary, a speech that ended up never happening...What Giuliani appears to be saying is that earlier that day the top people in Trump’s campaign had a planning meeting to prep for the dirt meeting with the Russians two days later. This is hardly surprising. But it lines up perfectly with what many have long suspected: that Trump was so excited about the dirt his campaign was going to receive from Russia two days later that he couldn’t help but brag about it in public that night.
That last part is supposition, but the Gates point is potentially big. Gates is cooperating with Mueller, so if there really was a 'planning' meeting in advance of the would-be 'collusion' meeting, Gates knows all about it -- and presumably has told the special counsel's team everything he knows on the subject. It wouldn't matter if Trump was personally at that meeting or not, given Team Trump's adamant denials of any high-level collusion. But then just a few hours after mentioning Gates' presence at a previously-undisclosed 'planning' meeting, Rudy phoned us up and said that the meeting never even happened. Make of that what you will. I'm not even sure I know what I make of it. Here is video of our entire, lengthy exchange with Mayor Giuliani.