Keep an Eye on Rudy Giuliani’s Collusion Bait-and-Switch

Trump’s hilariously incapable lawyer keeps twisting the Russia narrative before our eyes

The traveling sad-clown show that is latter-day Rudy Giuliani appeared on cable news Monday morning to begin another work week with a torrent of laughable claims and theories about the federal investigation closing in on his client, President Donald Trump. The always-risible, factually-suspect “there-was-no-collusion” mantra chanted by the president’s many defenders for the past 15 months has now officially morphed into: “So what if there was collusion? It’s not a crime.”

This is correct. Collusion is not a crime recognized in any federal statute. (Although Jeffrey Toobin pitched the idea in April based on a sentence in the August 2017 authorization Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.) But saying so doesn’t exonerate the president of any of the crimes the special counsel may be investigating. The relevant crime here, if indeed there is one, is conspiracy. And if there is a living human being who ought to know what a conspiracy is, it’s Rudy Giuliani, the former federal prosecutor who was involved in hundreds of conspiracy cases during his well-chronicled tenure as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The story of Monday morning, then, isn’t that the venerable federal prosecutor is educating the rest of us about legal standards. The story is that the president’s current favorite legal mouthpiece is virtually admitting that Trump colluded with the Russians, which is different from anything the president himself has said in all of those batshit tweets we’ve endured these past few years. This concession is more significant politically than it is legally. Trump may not have colluded but still may have conspired, but it’s still a big deal even if, as I imagine, Trump soon will tweet anew to his indefatigable base that he didn’t collude with the Russians after all.

Giuliani’s new working theory illustrates that White House insiders at last realize that they have to change their spin strategy to reflect the new strength and detail of the allegations and evidence against the president. They have to do this not just because of what Michael Cohen may know about Trump and the Russians, but because of how Cohen’s testimony will likely be corroborated by other potential witnesses whose reliability and credibility will be far harder to slime.

This explains why Giuliani on Monday morning also backed away from a key (and basic) fact involving Trump and that infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. Now, the official White House line is that Trump wasn’t physically present at the meeting; the old line was that the president didn’t know anything about the meeting. What that tells us is that the president almost certainly knew plenty more about the meeting than he has previously disclosed and that his lawyers now figure Mueller will be able to prove so.

The smartest thing any of us can do as the president’s legal position becomes more tenuous is to disregard the substance of everything that comes out of the mouth of Giuliani and other Trump tribunes. Their comments about the investigation, legal standards and what the evidence says and does not say is valuable only for what it tells us about the heightened level of fear within Trump’s circle (manifested over the weekend in the president’s frantic tweets). Otherwise, it’s just lies or gibberish — like pretending Mueller’s investigation hasn’t already produced guilty pleas and indictments or that the special counsel’s team is made up of rabid Democrats.

Be alert, on the other hand, if Giuliani asserts that a president cannot by law engage in a criminal conspiracy or if the goal post changes once again on whether a president can ever obstruct justice. One of my favorite developments of the past few weeks is the argument by the president’s defenders that he could not have obstructed justice because his obstruction of justice was so obvious and public. This line of thinking is like everything else a desperate Giuliani says these days that’s no going to fly — either in the court of public opinion or in a federal courtroom if Mueller decides to move on the president’s son or other key advisers.

Speaking of federal courtrooms, and all the president’s men, United States v. Manafort begins Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Virginia. Prosecutors have a strong corruption case against the former Trump campaign manager, and the evidence is likely to depict an epic grift, but none of us should expect this trial to serve as some definitive statement on the Trump team’s Russian ties. The Manafort story, instead, is just one piece of the larger puzzle of public corruption and foreign influence within the Trump campaign, transition and administration — and there will be many more puzzle pieces unveiled before it’s all over.