As the second disorientating summer of President Donald Trump’s presidency unfolds, it’s becoming hard to work out what is real, what is smoke and what is pure fantasy.
But for Trump, that is the point as he faces imminent and medium-term legal and political challenges that could have grave implications for his presidency and give him every incentive to try to make everyone look the other way.
So after a weekend spent spearing special counsel Robert Mueller on Twitter, Trump, helped by his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, on Monday seeded a new cloud of obfuscation and confusion on Russia, budget brinkmanship and Iran. But the President refused to answer questions about the epic meltdown of his relationship with his former lawyer Michael Cohen who now appears bent on bringing him down.
His tetchy mood will likely worsen when Mueller on Tuesday fires up his expensively assembled prosecutorial engine for its first real test in court, when Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort goes on trial on tax and fraud charges in Virginia.
And the approaching midterm elections, the first chance for voters nationwide to cast a verdict on Trump’s tumultuous presidency, are also clearly at the top of the President’s mind, shaping political and legal strategies that seem to evolve by the hour.
Giuliani did not just move the goalposts in his defense of Trump from the Mueller probe on Monday – he ripped up the field and desecrated the stadium.
In a performance clearly calibrated to harden wavering Republicans against Mueller, Giuliani claimed on CNN’s “New Day” that he doesn’t “even know if that’s a crime, colluding about Russians.” The President picked up on that line Tuesday morning, tweeting, “Collusion is not a crime, but that doesn’t matter because there was No Collusion (except by Crooked Hillary and the Democrats)!”
This evolution of the Trump defense was notable given that Trump has spent months tweeting “No Collusion!” and it prompted immediate questions about whether the President’s legal team was tacitly admitting more liability for the President than it had previously accepted.
While it’s true that there is no specific offense of collusion, any proof that the President or his election team knew that there was an attempt by Russia to interfere in the election to help Trump win could plunge them into very hot water.
“What he has said here today of course makes no sense legally, it is a crime to coordinate with foreign nationals and receive a thing of value as a donation, it is a conspiracy to defraud the United States if you engage in that sort of conduct,” said Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst who once worked for Mueller at the Justice Department.
A day before Manafort’s trial opens in Virginia, the former New York mayor also took steps to distance Trump from his former campaign chairman who he said had responsibility for a “very discrete and important area” in 2016 – the securing of delegates at the Republican National Convention.
Still, it is already clear that while Trump and the issue of Russian election interference will not be in the dock, the proceedings in Alexandria, Virginia, will loom over the White House as long as the case lasts.
If convicted and with the prospect of spending the rest of his life in jail, there could be new incentives for Manafort to cooperate with Mueller if he has any information about Trump or aides conspiring with Russia’s election interference effort.
That reality may help explain Trump’s searing attacks on Mueller over the weekend that represent the most personal assault on the special counsel yet by the President. It may also hint at the motivation of Giuliani’s muddying mission on Monday that left Trump’s legal strategy more confused than ever.
Another stunning summit?
It’s been barely a week since Trump tweeted in capital letters warning Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani that if he didn’t quit threatening the United States his country would “suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”
Yet on Monday, responding to a question after meeting Italy’s Prime Minister, Trump offered to sit down with the Iranian leader – an encounter that would be the first such meeting since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
“I would certainly meet with Iran if they wanted to meet,” Trump said. “I’m ready to meet whenever they want to.”
“No preconditions,” he added.
It wasn’t actually that surprising that Trump took such an approach. After all, he threw diplomatic convention out of the window by sitting down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June despite the two sides being effectively at war for nearly 70 years.
As the President and his subordinates adopt fearsome rhetoric and escalate the long showdown with the Islamic Republic, they appear to be trying to create the same kind of leverage that appears to have helped get Kim to the table.
Yet the question of how far their approach represents a reality-based strategy must again be asked.
Many analysts believe it is impossible that Iran would agree to sit down with Trump – for ideological reasons and especially since he pulled out of a nuclear deal agreed by the Obama administration with Tehran. The chances that the President could get a better deal are slim, since the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany that agreed to the original approach are still committed to it, giving Iran little incentive to fold.
It also seems unlikely that Trump’s key Middle Eastern allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, would welcome such an approach.
And given the as-yet-unclear results of his recent summits with Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin, an attempt to engineer a summit with Rouhani – with no preconditions – would be an act of stunning political bravado.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an interview with CNBC, later tried to row back Trump’s no preconditions offer.
“If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people, reduce their malign behavior, can agree that it’s worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, then the president said he’s prepared to sit down and have the conversation with them,” Pompeo said.
His comments reinforced questions about whether the President’s remarks were a real statement of US policy or simply an attempt to throw up a smokescreen.
Government shutdown shut down?
As far as Republicans on Capitol Hill were concerned, the idea of a government shutdown was off the table before the midterms following meetings between the President and GOP leaders.
Trump on Monday reinforced a suggestion first made in a tweet by threatening a shutdown to force lawmakers to fund the border wall that was at the center of his 2016 election messaging.
“If we don’t get border security after many, many years of talk within the United States, I would have no problem doing a shutdown,” Trump said.
The threat could be an attempt by the President to drum up turnout in the midterms.
Yet, as with his statement on Iran and the latest twists of his defense in the Russia matter, it’s reasonable to question how real and lasting Monday’s threat is likely to be. That’s because shuttering Washington before the midterms could rebound against Republicans and drown out attention over the party’s top two arguments to conservative voters – economic growth and the expected confirmation of a second Supreme Court justice.
Still, it was noticeable that Trump did not specifically name a date for a shutdown, leaving open the possibility that he could sign a continuing resolution to fund government through the midterms, then seek a showdown in the lame duck session after the election.
Whether the positions Trump and Giuliani rolled out Monday are genuine shifts or are just trial balloons will play out over the next weeks and months.
For now, the fog they laid down on Monday helped the administration get through another day and another news cycle.
But eventually, voters will cast their verdict in the midterms and Mueller will wrap up his probe.
What happens then if those decisions go against Trump will be far more difficult for the President and his team to spin away.