President Trump’s new lawyer has a warning about President Trump’s old lawyer: Don’t trust him. According to CNN and NBC News, Donald Trump’s previous lawyer, Michael Cohen, has said he’s prepared to tell investigators that in June of 2016, he witnessed Donald Trump Jr. tell Trump about a Russian offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton. The offer led to the now-infamous meeting at Trump Tower, which Trump claims to have known nothing about. If Cohen’s story is true, then Trump colluded with Russia.
Trump’s new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, says Cohen is lying. He points out that Cohen has changed his story—Cohen previously said he had never seen any sign of Trump colluding with Russia—and that Cohen is under investigation himself, which means he might be concocting a tale to bargain his way out of a jam. But in a Thursday night interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Giuliani laid the groundwork for several fallback defenses in case Cohen’s story is confirmed. The interview is a sign of unease in the Trump camp—and a potential preview of what lies ahead.
Giuliani projected complete confidence as he trashed Cohen’s character. But he seemed uncertain when he was pressed about what happened in the conversation Cohen claims to have witnessed. Giuliani said that one or two months ago he had “talked to the corroborating witnesses,” the “people in the room with the president” when the conversation supposedly occurred. Giuliani implied that their accounts would contradict Cohen’s. But when Cuomo asked Giuliani whether these witnesses would “say different things” from what Cohen was saying, Giuliani hedged a bit: “I’m pretty comfortable about that. I haven’t had a chance to go back and look at all of it, but I remember it pretty well.”
Indeed, Giuliani seemed prepared for a surprise. When Cuomo asked what would happen “if Cohen’s telling the truth,” Giuliani said he didn’t want to entertain that scenario because “it’s so contrary to all the facts that I know up until now.” That I know and up until now are odd caveats to add if you trust your client. But if you’ve been misled by your client several times, as Giuliani has, they’re perfectly understandable. In the Trump family, statements are, at best, provisionally true.
During the interview, Giuliani brought up Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, whose trial in the Russia investigation is scheduled to begin next week. Giuliani raised the same concern about Manafort that he expressed about Cohen: The target might flip against Trump. “They’re putting Manafort in solitary confinement … to get him to break,” Giuliani protested. “And maybe they’ve succeeded in cracking this guy and getting him to lie. I don’t know. I’m not sure of that. I have—well, I shouldn’t say it.” At that moment, sadly, Cuomo discouraged Giuliani from finishing his thought. It seemed that Giuliani was about to offer an explanation for a hypothetical Manafort flip.
Giuliani said Cohen was “walking into a trap,” presumably because other witnesses would contradict him. But a few minutes later, Giuliani worried that Trump was the one facing a trap. “I don’t want him to testify, because I don’t want him to be put up against liars,” said Giuliani. Even if “there are three witnesses that corroborate” Trump, Giuliani argued, the investigators might “recommend [a charge of] perjury because one guy, a proven liar, says the opposite.” That’s not how prosecutions work, of course, and Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney, knows it. If the testimony is three against one, with no corroboration, you don’t get charged with perjury. But Giuliani’s comments about perjury and refusing to testify, as well as his curious use of the plural, liars, make perfect sense if he’s afraid that someone or something will back up Cohen’s story.
That something could be notes, emails, or an audio recording. Cohen has no recording of the conversation, according to CNN, and in the interview, Giuliani pounced on that admission.
“Why didn’t he tape it?” Giuliani demanded. “He taped everything else. He’s got a hundred tapes. Why didn’t he tape that?” If the story were true, Giuliani implied, then Cohen should have made and kept a recording. But if Cohen does have a recording, Giuliani has an answer for that, too: Cohen has “betrayed” Trump by taping some of their phone calls, Giuliani told Cuomo, and therefore Cohen is a weasel whose testimony can’t be trusted. Trump and Giuliani have already field-tested this line of attack against former FBI Director James Comey, who took notes after his conversations with Trump. You’re damned if you record what Trump says, and you’re damned if you don’t.
Giuliani is endlessly creative in his speculations about what is or isn’t on tape. Cohen has already produced one incriminating tape, which indicates that shortly before the 2016 election, Trump discussed payments to quash a story about his extramarital affairs. But this might be just one of many tapes Cohen made around that time, says Giuliani, and Cohen might have destroyed others that exonerated Trump. When Cuomo pointed out that Trump seemed familiar with the payments Cohen discussed on the tape—contradicting Giuliani’s earlier description of the conversation—Giuliani speculated that Cohen had planted the idea in a previous, unrecorded chat. Giuliani also claimed that Cohen cut off the recording just as Trump was about to say something that proved Trump’s innocence. As to the conversation in which Trump Jr. ostensibly told his father about the Russians, Giuliani suggested that Cohen might have recorded it and then destroyed the recording because it didn’t match Cohen’s story.
If recordings should be expected from anyone disputing what was said in a conversation, as Giuliani implies, then you’d expect Trump to have recorded the conversation about the Russians himself. But Trump is too honorable to have done such a thing, says Giuliani. “The president doesn’t go around taping” people, he told Cuomo. When Cuomo pointed out that Trump had once threatened Comey with precisely such a recording—“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press,” Trump tweeted in May 2017—Giuliani replied that Trump had issued that threat only “as a test of Comey.” Giuliani then moved on to other topics, neglecting to mention that Comey passed the test—and Trump failed it—since Trump hasn’t come up with any evidence, much less a recording, to show that Comey’s notes are inaccurate.
If all other defenses collapse, Giuliani has two final arguments. One is that the whole Russia investigation is illegitimate. In the CNN interview, Giuliani claimed that the investigators were “all Democrats … not a single Republican.” When Cuomo pointed out that Comey, special counsel Robert Mueller, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were Republicans, Giuliani dismissed them as fakes. “Oh, yeah, they’re some Republicans,” Giuliani snarked. When Cuomo noted that Rosenstein was a Trump appointee, Giuliani called his appointment “a very serious mistake of judgment.” When Cuomo noted that Trump had personally interviewed Mueller as a potential FBI director, Giuliani said that was only because Trump “didn’t know all the bad things about Mueller.”
The other argument is that collusion is OK. If Cohen’s account turns out to be true, Giuliani told Cuomo, “I honestly don’t think it’s that significant.” After all, Giuliani asked: “Did Trump ever meet with Russians? Did he ever agree with them? What do you mean, he colluded? The Russians hacked. Nobody thinks the president was involved in the hacking. Did he get the fruits of it unknowingly? No. But if he did, that’s not a crime.”
That’s where Giuliani will end up if Trump turns out to have lied about everything. For now, Giuliani isn’t going there. But when Trump is your client, you have to be ready to change your story. Just ask Michael Cohen.
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