Sometimes I wonder why Team Trump keeps trotting Rudy Giuliani out to do television interviews. He's spent a career as an outstanding lawyer, served the people of New York with admirable and historic leadership (both before and after 9/11), and earned the loving moniker of "America's Mayor." But at this stage in his life, he increasingly looks like a liability for the president, frequently needing to clean up after himself after creating messes and headaches on live TV. This somewhat surreal episode from last summer springs to mind, for instance. Other times, it appears as though Giuliani is deliberately dispatched to get out in front of bad news, spilling it to the public before it gets reported elsewhere. Think, for example, of Rudy's out-of-the-blue revelation on Hannity that Trump did reimburse Michael Cohen for the Stormy Daniels hush money after all, flipping the Official Trump Story on its head (which also required multiple rounds of "clarification" damage control).
Fast forward to last night, when Rudy joined Chris Cuomo's CNN show and appeared to pare down the longstanding blanket denial on Trump campaign collusion with Russia to a far narrower denial about Trump himself. Who knows what the campaign did, after all? This exchange obviously garnered a great deal of attention. Watch:
Rudy Giuliani, on CNN: "I never said there was no collusion between people in the campaign" and Russians.— Todd Zwillich (@toddzwillich) January 17, 2019
And on Trump, "He said *he* didn't (collude with Russians.) He didn't say nobody."
In fact, Trump, his lawyers, his spokespeople, and his supporters have repeatedly said there was no collusion (often in all caps) between the Russians and the campaign. And, it must be said, their stories and denials about contact with Russians have...evolved multiple times, seemingly re-writing the record on the fly, as new information becomes public. Some of these shifts could be relatively harmless, as the expiring previous statements were foolishly over-broad to begin with. Allegations that Jeff Sessions "lied" about meeting with Russians, to pick one example, may or may not have been seriously overblown by Democrats. In any case, if "NO COLLUSION" is morphing into "well, maybe some collusion, but not by Trump," that is significant. Was this an instance of Rudy trying to reshape the political terrain in advance of a damaging update, or was it just Rudy badly muddling his intended argument? Rich Lowry thinks the context of the longer interview at least files down the sharpness of the above quotes' teeth, recommending that people watch the whole thing before drawing "momentous conclusions." Ed Morrissey seems to somewhat agree:
The CNN clip picks up in the middle of the argument over “collusion,” by which Cuomo apparently means “contact” as the argument unfolds. Rather than initially pointing out the difference, Giuliani initially agrees to the definition and then blurts out the eye-popping line. Later in the interview Giuliani does make the distinction by explaining that the “collusion” charge has to do with whether any crime was committed — in this case, participation in or encouragement of the hack on the DNC. By that time, though, the damage is done...
Was Giuliani talking about contact or collaboration? Also, are Paul Manafort's apparent lies about sharing campaign polling with a suspected Russian intelligence asset (with whom he'd worked for years), apparently with the intent of the data being passed along to Ukrainian oligarchs, evidence of "collusion"? It's possible, but there are plenty of counter-arguments to that framing of events. An important series of points by Morrissey:
The recent revelations about Manafort that have Cuomo so exercised seem a lot less exciting than he makes them out to be, too. Internal polling isn’t really much of a secret, and Cuomo’s suggestion that the campaign shared them with Russia for the purpose of targeting their fake-news campaign doesn’t make much sense. By the time Manafort offered to share that data, the Russian disinformation campaign was well under way, and there was plenty of public polling data to use for such targeting. (In fact, they could have simply used one of their shell companies to contract with commercial data firms that produce much better targeting data.) Don’t forget that the Trump campaign’s internal polling wasn’t all that sophisticated in the first place; they were way behind on data and didn’t take that kind of research seriously until after the convention, when Manafort was already out. Manafort’s offer to share that data likely has much more to do with his debts to Russian oligarchs than “collusion” with a disinformation campaign, and has even less to do with the DNC hack.
I'll say this, however: Giuliani's distinction about "collusion" vs. the commission of a crime leaves me cold. It's true that 'collusion' isn't necessarily a legal term, and that certain deeds that would fit that bill (beyond aiding and abetting a bona fide crime, such as the DNC hack) may not carry criminal penalties. But in my view, if it is proven by Mueller that figures within the highest reaches of the Trump campaign explicitly worked with the Kremlin toward the shared goal of defeating Hillary Clinton, that would leave an indelible stain on this presidency, and would quite possibly constitute an impeachable offense. Impeachment is a political act, after all, rooted in a politically-determined definition of 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' But we're putting the cart before the horse. Let's see Mueller's actual evidence first. It could be damning. It could be underwhelming. I'll leave you with our disagreement-filled 'Russiagate' discussion with anti-Trump conservative Tom Nichols on Benson & Harf: