Politics

The Fool’s Fool

If Rudy Giuliani has a strategy for defending the president, it’s buried under layers of ineptitude.

Rudy Giuliani holding a microphone.
Rudy Giuliani.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s lawyer, keeps getting into trouble. On Monday, for the second time in four days, Giuliani had to issue a statement clarifying remarks he had made about Trump’s alleged corrupt acts. Conspiracy theorists think Giuliani spills damaging information about Trump in order to protect the president by muddling bad news. But if that’s the plan, Giuliani is botching it. He’s hurting his client and making a fool of himself because, like Trump, he’s erratic, delusional, and obtuse.

Giuliani squanders his credibility on obvious lies: that “storm troopers” broke into the office of Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen (wrong); that former FBI Director James Comey said Trump couldn’t have obstructed justice (wrong); that the Russia investigation “came to the conclusion: no evidence” (wrong); and that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met only twice (wrong). Last month, he said prosecutors had nothing to corroborate Cohen’s claim that Trump coordinated payments to his alleged mistresses. In fact, prosecutors had an audio recording.

Often, Giuliani contradicts himself. On Sunday, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked him about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who allegedly shared the campaign’s internal poll data with foreign associates. “He owed them money,” Giuliani explained. Tapper corrected him: “I think they owed him money.” Giuliani abruptly reversed himself: “Oh, I’m sorry. Other way around. So he wanted to get paid.” On Meet the Press, Giuliani was asked about Cohen’s 2017 testimony to Congress, in which Cohen falsely downplayed Trump’s efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow in 2016. Giuliani asserted that when Cohen was planning his testimony, Trump’s “counsel to Michael Cohen throughout that entire period was, ‘Tell the truth.’ ” But in his interview with Tapper, Giuliani claimed that Trump “did not have discussions” with Cohen about the testimony.

Giuliani calls the Russia investigation a “witch hunt,” but he keeps being forced to acknowledge witches. In May, he told Sean Hannity, “Russian collusion is a total fake news. … That means the whole investigation was totally unnecessary.” But last week, after Manafort’s transfer of poll data was disclosed, Giuliani changed his story. “I never said there was no collusion between the campaign” and Russia, the president’s lawyer told CNN’s Chris Cuomo. “I have no idea, never have, what other people were doing.”

Lately, Giuliani has gotten into a mess on this question: At what point in 2016 did Trump and Cohen end their pursuit of the Moscow tower project? On Sunday, Giuliani told the New York Times that Trump “does remember conversations about Moscow.” The next day, Giuliani accused the Times of misrepresenting him. “I never said he was involved in such conversations,” Giuliani told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner. Giuliani claimed he had explained to the Times that “these conversations didn’t take place.” But play back Giuliani’s Sunday TV interviews, and you’ll see him saying exactly what he told the Times: that Trump “had conversations” with Cohen about the project “throughout 2016.” Giuliani uses the word conversation to refer to two different things: talks between Trump and Cohen, and talks between Cohen and contacts in Russia. He confuses everyone else because he confuses himself.

Giuliani also trips himself up on the word project. On Meet the Press, he referred five times to the Moscow tower “project.” He quoted Trump as having told him, with regard to Cohen in 2015 and 2016, “We talked about the project.” But in his interview with the New Yorker, Giuliani tried to withdraw this word, fearing that it would concede Trump had hidden business in Russia during the campaign. “The project was over in November, December, January, right into 2016,” Giuliani told Chotiner. “So there was no project.”

Giuliani says his interviews are misunderstood because he’s a sophisticated lawyer who argues “in the alternative.” By that, he means this kind of argument: My client didn’t do what’s alleged—but even if he had, it wouldn’t have been illegal. But that isn’t how Giuliani phrases his arguments. He just blurts out what Trump did. Take, for example, the February 2017 Oval Office meeting in which Trump allegedly asked Comey to give Michael Flynn a pass for lying about his contacts with Russia. In his interview on ABC in July, Giuliani described the meeting this way: “What he said to him was can you—can you give him a break.” Giuliani later denied that he was conceding what had happened. But on Sunday, he did it again. “The president said, ‘Please go easy on Flynn,’ ” Giuliani told NBC’s Chuck Todd.

Giuliani keeps slipping into these declarative concessions because he knows they’re true. Then he tries to clean them up by claiming to have spoken “hypothetically.” In his latest clarification, issued on Monday, Giuliani claimed that statements he had made on Sunday about the Trump-Cohen Moscow tower discussions “were hypothetical and not based on conversations I had with the President.” That’s preposterous. In his Sunday interviews, Giuliani relayed Trump’s answers in the first person: “The president’s recollection is, ‘I talked about it with him in 2015, 2016.’ ” The talks were going on “from the day I announced to the day I won.” Those aren’t hypotheticals. They’re quotes.

So far, Giuliani has had to issue at least three formal statements correcting himself. On live TV, he keeps falling on his face. Go back and look at his debut appearance as Trump’s lawyer on Hannity. There, Giuliani disclosed for the first time that Trump had reimbursed Cohen for paying off women. Some pundits thought this was a shrewd play by Giuliani to dump bad news on a friendly show. But he was completely unprepared when Hannity asked him to reconcile his new story with Cohen’s story—which Trump and Giuliani, at that point, were still defending.

Giuliani: The president reimbursed that over a period of several months.

Hannity: But [Cohen] had said he didn’t. I distinctly remember that he [Cohen] did it on his own, without asking.

Giuliani: He did? Look, I don’t know. I haven’t investigated that.

In Chotiner’s interview, you’ll see the same incompetence. Giuliani attacks the recent BuzzFeed story that Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress. Giuliani says he knows personally that the story is false “because I have been through all the tapes.” Chotiner asks: “Wait, what tapes have you gone through?” At that point, Giuliani backpedals: “I shouldn’t have said tapes. … No tapes. Well, I have listened to tapes, but none of them concern this.” Then Giuliani says the story can’t be true because BuzzFeed’s sources, two law enforcement officials, “would have had to work for” Mueller, who has called the story inaccurate. Chotiner points out that the two officials might, more plausibly, work for the Southern District of New York. Giuliani disputes this, but he seems not to have thought of it. “Kinda,” he tells Chotiner. “It could have been.”

If there’s a strategy in these interviews, it’s buried under layers of ineptitude. Giuliani got this job because he knew Trump, because he was willing to work for free, and because he flatters and mirrors his client. He talks too much. He disregards evidence. He hurls wild accusations. He gets lost in his own incoherence. There’s a saying among lawyers that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client. The same is true of a man who chooses to be represented by a friend who shares his defects. Trump has a fool for a lawyer, because Giuliani has a fool for a client.