Politics

The Worst Offense in Trump World Is Proving the President Lied

In Trump’s upside-down logic, anyone who provides evidence of the president’s corruption can’t be trusted.

Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images and Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

President Donald Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, claim that the men around the president have betrayed him. First these “rats” turned on Trump. Then they lied about him. Then they did the dirtiest thing of all: They produced evidence. One after another, people who worked for Trump, with Trump, or in his government—former FBI Director James Comey, attorney Michael Cohen, media executive David Pecker, FBI agents, and federal prosecutors—have come under attack for proving that Trump is lying.

Here’s how the cycle goes. First, Trump does something corrupt: He buys a woman’s silence, covers up contacts with Russians, or fires investigators who try to find out what happened. Then, when subordinates disclose his corrupt acts, he says they’re lying. Then, when the subordinates present evidence to support their allegations—memos, phone calls, witnesses, financial records—Trump and Giuliani accuse them of treachery for collecting or releasing the evidence. In the upside-down logic of Trump and Giuliani, anyone who proves Trump is lying can’t be trusted.

Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer and lawyer, seemed loyal. For months, he backed up Trump’s story that the president hadn’t known about pre-election payments to women who claimed to have had affairs with him. “Michael is a good person,” the president told Fox News in April.

Then Cohen turned on Trump. In August, he told a judge that Trump had directed the payments. Not true, said Trump and Giuliani. “Those charges were just agreed to by [Cohen] in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. On Sunday, Giuliani called Cohen “a complete pathological liar.” It’s Trump’s word against Cohen’s, said Giuliani, and Cohen isn’t credible, since he has changed his story. There’s “no way” to believe Cohen over Trump, Giuliani told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “other than taking Cohen’s word for it.”

But it turns out there is a way. Cohen, that snitch, recorded a phone call with Trump in September 2016. In the audio, posted by CNN in July, Trump can be heard discussing with Cohen the amount that would be paid to one woman, the intermediary who would handle it, and the Trump Organization executive who had signed off on the plan.

How have Trump and Giuliani responded to this evidence? By attacking Cohen for recording the call. “What kind of a lawyer would tape a client?” Trump raged on Twitter after the audio was posted. On Sunday, the president called Cohen a “rat.” Giuliani, in Sunday interviews on ABC and Fox News, called Cohen’s behavior “outrageous,” not just because Cohen recorded Trump, but because Cohen “revealed the tape.”

In Trump’s eyes, Cohen isn’t alone in his treachery. The recording came to light because the FBI raided Cohen’s office in April, pursuant to a warrant issued by a federal judge. “Now they do the Unthinkable, and RAID a lawyers office for information!” Trump fumed when he learned of the evidence-collecting operation. On Sunday, Trump tweeted, “Michael Cohen only became a ‘Rat’ after the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable & unheard of until the Witch Hunt was illegally started. They BROKE INTO AN ATTORNEY’S OFFICE!” Trump’s accusation was false, but it faithfully reflected his gangster mentality.

Trump and Giuliani said the recorded call didn’t prove that the payments to silence women had violated campaign finance laws. But that defense is falling apart, too, thanks to Pecker, the tabloid executive who collaborated with Trump in the payment plan. On Nov. 9, the Wall Street Journal, citing a draft indictment and other documents, said prosecutors had evidence that “Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings,” including an August 2015 sit-down with Pecker and Cohen at Trump Tower.* The evidence included a request, sent from Pecker to Cohen, to abort the payment deal because it might count as “an in-kind campaign contribution.”

Documents released in the past two weeks indicate that Pecker, a longtime friend of Trump’s, has provided additional evidence to nail down the campaign finance charge. A sentencing memo filed against Cohen on Dec. 7 by Robert Khuzami, a Republican U.S. attorney, refers to an August 2014 meeting between Trump, Cohen, and Pecker. On Dec. 12, Khuzami announced that Pecker’s company, American Media Inc., had struck an agreement with prosecutors. Under the agreement, AMI admitted to making a $150,000 payment—mentioned by Trump in his recorded call with Cohen—“in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign.”

Giuliani says Pecker is just another rat. “That’s why David Pecker got immunity,” the former mayor told Stephanopoulos: because Pecker is saying “what [prosecutors] want him to say.” Giuliani dismissed Cohen and Pecker as “a serial liar” and “a guy who’s been given complete immunity.”

Trump and Giuliani are also attacking the FBI for exposing the deceit of Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser. Last year, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians. Initially, Trump conceded that Flynn had lied. Now, however, Trump and Giuliani are disputing it.

The FBI has proof that Flynn lied: Intelligence intercepts of his phone calls contradict his denials. But Giuliani says the FBI’s use of that evidence was a dirty trick. “They put Flynn through questioning, and he says something wrong,” Giuliani recounted to Stephanopoulos. “And they got a document there that contradicts it. If they were searching for the truth, they’d show him the document, and they’d say, ‘General, does this refresh your recollection?’ ” Instead, said Giuliani, “They hid it so they could jam him for perjury.”

Giuliani blames Comey for this “unethical” use of evidence. It’s the latest in a long line of attacks on the former FBI director by Trump and Giuliani. In particular, they claim that Comey concocted a story about Flynn. Comey says that on Feb. 14, 2017, Trump ended an Oval Office meeting by telling everyone but Comey to leave the room. Then, according to Comey, the president asked him to “let go” of the FBI’s investigation of Flynn.

Trump says that’s a lie. On May 18, 2017, nine days after he fired Comey, Trump denied that he had ever urged Comey “in any way, shape, or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn.” In December 2017, Trump called it “another Comey lie” and repeated, “I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn.” Trump also says Comey lied about a January 2017 dinner at which, according to Comey, Trump asked the then–FBI director for personal allegiance. “I never asked Comey for Personal Loyalty,” the president tweeted earlier this year.

Giuliani calls Comey’s story about the February 2017 meeting a complete fabrication. “There was no conversation about Michael Flynn,” Giuliani told CNN’s Jake Tapper in August. “The conversation never took place.” It’s Trump’s word against Comey’s, says the former mayor, and Comey’s version is less credible, because not until May 2017, after he was fired, did Comey claim that Trump had pressured him. “All of a sudden, in May, he says he felt obstructed, he felt pressured,” Giuliani told Tapper.

That’s not true. Comey felt pressured from the beginning, and his story has remained consistent. We know this because after each meeting with Trump, Comey recorded the president’s words and deeds in a memo. Each memo included details that could be independently verified—for example, the names of the officials Trump had ordered out of the Oval Office before the Flynn conversation. Each memo also matched what Trump had told other witnesses. And by distributing his memos contemporaneously to colleagues at the FBI, Comey showed good faith: If the memos were false, and if the meetings with Trump had been taped—as Trump at one point suggested—the memos would be exposed as lies. Comey couldn’t go back and revise them.

For recording and disclosing the truth, Comey now stands accused of treachery. “James Comey is a proven LEAKER & LIAR,” Trump tweeted in April. “He leaked CLASSIFIED information, for which he should be prosecuted.” That charge was false—the memos weren’t classified—but Trump, furious that they exposed his corruption, portrayed them as state secrets. “James Comey’s Memos are Classified, I did not Declassify them,” the president declared. “They belong to our Government! Therefore, he broke the law!” Giuliani, too, misrepresented the memos. “Comey should be prosecuted for leaking confidential FBI information,” he told Sean Hannity in May.

Comey’s memos. Cohen’s audio recording. The FBI’s intercepts of Flynn. AMI’s and the Trump Organization’s financial records. Everywhere you look, the evidence corroborates the president’s accusers. That’s why Trump and Giuliani are calling these people rats and leakers. It’s not because Trump’s accusers are lying. It’s because they’re telling the truth, and they have the goods to prove it.

Correction, Dec. 21, 2018: This article originally misstated that according to the Wall Street Journal, Donald Trump had an August 2015 meeting with Trump and Cohen. The Journal reported that Trump had the meeting with Pecker and Cohen.