WASHINGTON -- There is madness in Rudy Giuliani’s incoherence on behalf of President Donald Trump, but there is also method. He’s following the Trump playbook: Confuse, distract, provoke and flood the zone with factoids and truthiness until nobody can be sure what’s real and what’s not.
“We all feel pretty good that we’ve got everything kind of straightened out and we’re setting the agenda,” Giuliani, now the mouthpiece for Trump’s legal team, told The Washington Post. “Everybody’s reacting to us now, and I feel good about that because that’s what I came in to do.”
He’s just messing with us with the bit about getting things straightened out. Let’s just say that it’s a good thing for him that he’s not under oath.
Giuliani revealed Wednesday that Trump reimbursed his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 payment he made to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence about an affair she says she had with Trump.
That made Trump’s prior claim of total ignorance about the payment a bald-faced lie. So Giuliani changed his story, or embellished it, by asserting that Trump didn’t know about the payment at the time it was made -- days before the 2016 election -- but found out about it later. When? Who knows?
Giuliani told the Post that the reimbursement came out of a $35,000 monthly retainer that Trump was paying Cohen. But he told Fox News that Cohen was “doing no work for the president” at that time. According to The New York Times, the retainer payments totaled at least $460,000. Giuliani told the Times that the payments began after the election, but he told the Post that Cohen might have used some of Trump’s money before the election, too.
Why would Trump pay so much in hush money to squelch disclosure of an alleged affair? “Imagine if that came out on Oct. 15, 2016, in the middle of the, you know, last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Giuliani said on “Fox & Friends.”
Oops. That means the payment to Daniels, which Cohen says he made with funds from his home equity line of credit, could be construed as an unreported and probably illegal campaign contribution, since its purpose was to help Trump win the election. So Giuliani pirouetted once more and said the payment was made “to resolve a personal and false allegation” and “would have been done in any event, whether [Trump] was a candidate or not.”
So we’re supposed to believe that Trump paid Cohen $35,000 a month to reimburse him for a hush-money payment that Trump, at least initially, knew nothing about. The money went to a woman Trump barely knew -- he can’t claim he never met her, since there’s a photograph of them together -- for an affair he says never took place. And Giuliani says there might be other women who also received hush money, but then again maybe not.
“I am focused on the law more than on the facts right now,” he told CNN, without apparent irony.
In terms of his legal skills, I think it’s clear that Giuliani has lost a step. Or two. One day he maintained there was no possible election law violation, the next day he made a circumstantial case that there indeed was a violation. Decades ago, when he was busting up the New York mob, he never would have made such a rookie mistake.
But I also believe his satisfaction with his media blitz is genuine. Following the FBI seizure of Cohen’s files, the whole truth of the Daniels payment -- and any others -- was likely to come out anyway. Giuliani pre-emptively offered several versions of that truth, allowing Trump’s supporters to choose the one they find least appalling.
He also managed to voice a confident-sounding, if wholly fictitious, rationale for Trump to stonewall special counsel Robert Mueller. Giuliani knows full well that the Constitution neither states nor implies that “a president cannot be distracted by a criminal investigation.” But some people who heard him make that ridiculous assertion to Sean Hannity probably nodded and said sure, that makes sense.
Giuliani is obfuscating, not clarifying. He’s making it harder to know even what the president claims, let alone what the truth might be. As a legal strategy, this would be insane. But it’s really a political strategy.
Congress poses the only serious threat to Trump, in the form of impeachment. If the president’s loyal base can be flimflammed into thinking this is all a big witch hunt, Republican lawmakers will stay in line. At least for now.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.