Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s attempts to defend the president on television continue to confound anyone who thinks they understand the role and responsibilities of a defense attorney. In two interviews on Sunday, Giuliani offered revealing responses to questions about Trump’s conversations with Michael Cohen and their attempts to line up a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The former New York mayor acknowledged that Trump and Cohen may have spoken before Cohen’s congressional testimony in which the president’s former fixer perjured himself. Giuliani also expanded the time line for how long the Trump Organization was actively looking into the Moscow development, admitting that it continued through Election Day. In a third interview, given to the New York Times, Giuliani effectively pointed out that Trump knew Cohen had lied to Congress. Then in the aftermath on Monday, Giuliani claimed he was only speaking hypothetically.
On Sunday’s State of the Union, host Jake Tapper brought up Thursday’s bombshell BuzzFeed News report alleging that Trump had instructed Cohen to lie to Congress about his contacts with Russia, according to two law enforcement sources. That report, which indicated that the Russia investigation had collected evidence of Trump committing an impeachable offense while in office, was then refuted in a rare statement from the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Friday. BuzzFeed News has continued to stand by the report, but no other news organization has been able to confirm it.
Giuliani and the White House have denied that Trump suborned Cohen’s perjury, and Trump said he appreciated the special counsel’s intervention. However Giuliani, in his State of the Union interview, acknowledged that Trump may indeed have spoken to Cohen about his testimony, while insisting the president did not tell Cohen to lie, while also admitting he did not really know if they had even spoken.
“As far as I know, President Trump did not have discussions with [Cohen about his congressional testimony],” Giuliani told Tapper on Sunday, or at least, “certainly no discussions with him in which he told him or counseled him to lie.”
“If he had any discussions with him, they’d be about the version of events that Michael Cohen gave them, which they all believed were true,” he continued, dismissing Cohen as a “serial liar.”
But Tapper, noting Giuliani’s lack of certainty, pressed him on whether Trump had spoken to Cohen about the testimony at all, and Giuliani seemed to hedge in his response, and explained that such a conversation would have been “perfectly normal” and innocent, since Trump didn’t know Cohen was lying.
“So it’s possible [the conversation] happened?,” Tapper asked again.
“I don’t know if it happened or it didn’t happen. And it might be attorney-client privileged if it happened, where I can’t acknowledge it. But I have no knowledge if [Trump] spoke to him,” Giuliani responded, later adding, “And so what if he talked to him about it?”
Pressed again, Giuliani then claimed “it’s not possible” Trump spoke with Cohen. He also reiterated that Cohen was in charge of the Trump Tower talks and lied to Trump about them, so how could Trump have then counseled him to tell a lie that he thought was the truth. (More on that absurd argument in a moment.)
Tapper also tried to get Giuliani to explain what Trump had told the special counsel in his written answers to Mueller’s questions regarding the Trump Tower Moscow project. Giuliani said that Trump “acknowledged that they had conversations about it, through 2105, 2016.”
Giuliani didn’t respond when asked to confirm whether those conversations lasted through the election in 2016, but had already acknowledged last month that they may have. The subject also came up on Sunday’s Meet the Press, however, and that was where Giuliani further revealed that the Moscow project plan had remained “an active proposal” as late as Election Day.
“It’s our understanding that they went on throughout 2016,” Giuliani responded, when asked about the timing of the president’s Trump Tower Moscow talks with Cohen, adding that there “weren’t a lot of them, but there were conversations, and that he “can’t be sure of the exact date.”
It “probably could be up to as far as October, November,” he continued. “Our answers [to the special counsel] cover until the election,” but Trump doesn’t remember everything from that period of time, because he was so busy running for president. Trump has also claimed that he did not care about the Moscow project, despite the fact that he had been trying to land a development in the city for decades.
As part of his plea deal, Cohen admitted that he lied to Congress about how long he worked on the Moscow deal in an effort to line up his testimony with what the president had already said publicly — which was that he had no business dealings in Russia during the campaign. But while Cohen admitted he lied so as to not contradict Trump’s lie, there was no indication that the president had illegally directed him to lie, as BuzzFeed News reported on Thursday.
But the court filing regarding Cohen’s plea also indicated that his discussions with another individual in the Trump Organization only lasted through June 2016. According to what Giuliani said Sunday, Trump’s statement to Mueller said that the Moscow conversations, and the possibility of the project itself, may have persisted through Election Day.
Giuliani said repeatedly on Sunday that President Trump was not able to remember the exact details of the meetings with Cohen because of the campaign, and that Trump thought Cohen was telling the truth to him and to Congress. But Giuliani effectively contested his own logic on that point in another interview he gave over the weekend, to the New York Times:
Mr. Giuliani [explained] that Mr. Trump “recalls a series of conversations” with [Cohen] about the project during the campaign.
“He can’t tell you the date” that it ended, Mr. Giuliani said. “There are no entries or phone logs” that indicated specifics, he added.
“The best he could do is, ‘We talked about it, I knew he was running with it, I honestly didn’t pay much attention to it,’” Mr. Giuliani said, characterizing Mr. Trump’s memory. He added that Mr. Trump recalled, “‘It was all going from the day I announced to the day I won.’”
And here is the key statement:
Mr. Giuliani said that when Mr. Cohen testified to Congress that the project had ended in January 2016, Mr. Trump simply “accepted” that answer.
“The president couldn’t tell you the exact day it started and the exact day it ended; he remembers it started and he remembers it ended,” Mr. Giuliani said, but nothing more. “It never got to anything concrete.”
President Trump may not be very intelligent or possess much savvy on legal matters, and it’s certainly possible he has trouble recalling the details of business meetings during the heat of a presidential campaign. But he is still Donald Trump, self-anointed deal-making legend and real estate mogul. And there were plans and discussions about constructing a long-sought skyscraper with his name on it in Moscow for more than a year, from not long after Trump announced his candidacy all the way through Election Day. A project like that is not one a man like Donald Trump would forget much about.
The president may have “accepted” Cohen’s lie when he heard it, as Giuliani claims, but there is little chance he didn’t recognize that it was one.
On Monday, Giuliani tried to clean up his mess by reframing what he had repeatedly said over the weekend as merely “hypothetical.” Here was his statement to NBC News:
My recent statements about discussions during the 2016 campaign between Michael Cohen and then-candidate Donald Trump about a potential Trump Moscow ‘project’ were hypothetical and not based on conversations I had with the President. My comments did not represent the actual timing or circumstances of any such discussions. The point is that the proposal was in the earliest stage and did not advance beyond a free non-binding letter of intent.
Speaking with Fox News, he tried to clarify again:
Giuliani [said] that Trump “had several conversations with Michael Cohen about the Trump Tower proposal. Cohen said the effort ended in January of 2016, and as far as President Trump knows, it ended then.” However, Giuliani added that Trump can’t say definitely when the proposal was shelved and answered a written question from Mueller to that effect.
“President Trump remembers very little about this, and Michael Cohen keeps saying different things,” Giuliani said [and added that] the scope of the questions from Mueller “went to the end of 2016, but that doesn’t mean the Trump Tower proposal goes until then.”
So Giuliani has still confirmed that when it came time for Trump and his lawyers to submit his carefully worded answers to Mueller, he told Mueller that he could not recall when the discussions actually ended, but that the deal was not definitively dead until the election.
Or in the paraphrased words of Trump himself, assuming Giuliani wasn’t hypothetically quoting him when talked to the Times, the Trump team’s pursuit of the Moscow project “was all going from the day I announced to the day I won.”
This post was updated to include the New York Times interview and Giuliani’s statements on Monday.