If you know anything about the White House’s reaction to the ongoing special counsel probe into Russia interference in the 2016 election, it’s these two words: “No collusion.”
Trump, as well as his top aides – everyone from senior counselor Kellyanne Conway to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders – has insisted since the start of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation in spring 2017 that no one in the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to help his candidacy and hurt that of Hillary Clinton. In a single answer to a question about the Mueller probe last January, for example, Trump unleashed an epic seven(!) “no collusion” assertions. Here’s just a piece of that (bolding mine):
“Well, again John, there has been no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians or Trump and Russians. No collusion. When I watch you interviewing all the people leaving their committees, I mean, the Democrats are all running for office, trying to say this that – but bottom line, they all say there’s no collusion. And there is no collusion.”
Trump’s Twitter feed, too, is choked with “no collusion” talk. According to the indispensable Trump Twitter Archive, Trump has tweeted the words “no collusion” 60 separate times, with the first coming on May 12, 2017 and the most recent happening on January 6.
All of which brings me to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Wednesday night. And these lines from Giuliani, in particular:
“I never said there was no collusion between the campaign, or people in the campaign. I said the President of the United States. There is not a single bit of evidence the President of the United States committed the only crime you can commit here, conspiring with the Russians to hack the DNC.”
Here’s the thing: Giuliani – as Cuomo pointed out in the moment – is 100% wrong about, well, all of it.
A quick search on my Google machine turned up this gem from an appearance by Giuliani on Fox News in July 2018:
Fox News’ Guy Benson: “Regardless of whether collusion would be a crime, is it still the position of you and your client that there was no collusion with the Russians whatsoever on behalf of the Trump campaign?”
Pretty cut and dry, no?
There’s no question Giuliani is lying about his own past statements – not to mention those of the President and lots and lots of his advisers – about the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The real question is: Why?
And the answer is, well, circumstances have changed. When Giuliani started claiming that there was “no collusion” between the campaign and the Russians, we didn’t know that campaign chairman Paul Manafort had not only met with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russia with ties to the country’s intelligence service, but had shared polling data on the 2016 race. Or that Kilimnik is a focus of Mueller’s probe.
The simple reality is that, given those two pieces of information, it is very, very hard for Giuliani (or Trump) to stand by their “NO COLLUSION” mantra. If what Manafort did isn’t collusion – and we don’t even know the full extent of it – then it is very damn close.
And so, Giuliani is engaging in a full-blown effort to move the goalposts. This was never a debate about whether ANYONE in Trump’s campaign orbit colluded with the Russians! This has always been about whether Trump himself colluded. And he didn’t! We win!
That spin doesn’t comport with known facts. And scads of audio and video clips of Trump, Giuliani and plenty of other Trump administration officials saying that there was no collusion between the campaign and the Russians.
But to Giuliani – and Trump – it may not matter. Remember that what the two of them have long been doing is not trying to fight the legal battle over the Mueller investigation, but rather the political one. Why? Because, ultimately, Trump’s fate will be decided by politicians, not lawyers.
Mueller has already made clear, at least according to Giuliani, that he does not believe he can indict a sitting president. So even if he finds evidence of wrongdoing by the President – like, say, directing and coordinating hush money payments to two women alleging affairs with him as a way to improve his chances of being elected – there is not likely to be any sort of legal movement as long as Trump is in office.
The impact of the Mueller report is almost certainly to be felt primarily in the political realm. Impeachment is the thing that is most dangerous to Trump if the Mueller report is deeply damning, and that is a political process running through the House and Senate. Given that, what Giuliani and Trump are trying to do is massage public opinion – particularly among the President’s supporters – in hopes that no matter what Mueller’s report says, they can convince people who back the President that this is all a nothing burger.
If, say, Mueller finds collusion but not by Trump, the President and Giuliani will now say: We told you! No collusion between Trump and the Russians. This is all one big witch hunt! Mueller didn’t find anything.
That spin would, of course, miss this key point: Mueller would have found collusion between a major party presidential campaign and an adversarial foreign power. Which, in the understatement of the century, would be a VERY big deal.
But in the world of Trump and Rudy, none of that would matter. If Trump could maintain some level of credibility with his base, it would make it that much harder for GOP lawmakers – especially in the Senate – to turn on him in impeachment proceedings.
None of that, however, should excuse what Giuliani was up to on Wednesday night. He was purposely trying to rewrite the history of his defense of the President of the United States in an ongoing investigation into how Russia sought to influence a national election on US soil.
Sit with that for a minute.