My Salon column today about the Trump and Rudy show:
Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's new personal lawyer, went on Sean Hannity's show and "Fox & Friends" this week, giving dense and baffling interviews about his client's legal issues that nearly blew up the capital. And nobody in the White House except for the president knew he was going to do it. Evidently, Giuliani and Trump cooked this strategy up all by themselves, bringing to mind one of those movies where the aging crooks sit in the diner and plan their last big heist, which. naturally enough, goes terribly wrong because their skills aren't as sharp as they used to be.
You'll recall that at one time it was assumed that Giuliani would be in the cabinet, perhaps as attorney general. But gossip
at the time held that Trump noticed that Giuliani was dozing off in meetings and didn't think he was sharp enough for a big job. So he put him in charge of some cyber-security program, which Giuliani promised to get right on as soon as he figured out how to set the clock on his brand new VCR. That was the last we heard about it.
Indeed, the former New York mayor and prosecutor hasn't been heard from much at all during this presidency until Trump decided to bring him on as one of his personal lawyers in the Russia probe. It's clear that these two guys are happy to be back in the saddle doing what they do best: Working the tabloid media to get their names in the papers. The problem is that this particular talent is irrelevant at best, and likely counterproductive, when it comes to the problem they face today.
In a nutshell, Giuliani confirmed that Trump had paid the Stormy Daniels hush money by "funneling" it through Cohen's law firm in the form of monthly retainers paid out over the course of 2017 -- while Trump was president, mind you -- in the amount of $470,000. Giuliani explained that this covered the Daniels payment and that Cohen would "get a little profit" and some money to pay taxes. Giuliani further claimed that this was entirely personal and Trump knew nothing about it until after the raid on Cohen's office, thus explaining why he had denied paying Daniels when asked about it on Air Force One a few weeks ago.
The upshot seems to be that Trump routinely "funnels" large sums of money to Cohen to use as a slush fund to pay off people as necessary. Giuliani says that many wealthy people have such an arrangement and it's all perfectly legal and had nothing to do with the presidential campaign. Essentially, it's all just part of the Witch Hunt! Giuliani also suggested that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should "step in"
and put a stop to the Cohen probe immediately, as if that would settle it.
One of the main problems with this story is that it involves Donald Trump, who personally signed every check for the Trump Organization even during the 2016 campaign and believed he could continue to do so
as president. He has never left a nickel on the sidewalk. It is not credible that he gave Michael Cohen almost half a million dollars a year to "fix" things for him, with no questions asked.
Furthermore, nobody has exactly nailed down where Cohen got the original $130,000 to pay Daniels (which was later allegedly paid back by Trump through these "monthly retainers.") Cohen has claimed that he took out a home equity loan through his bank, and if he did that he must have lied about it. It seems unlikely that he told the lender he needed some temporary cash to pay off a porn star on someone else's behalf. If he did lie to the bank about the purpose of the loan, that is a crime. What makes this more curious still is that Cohen is clearly a wealthy man and presumably could lay his hands on that amount of money without much trouble. That's just one of the many mysteries that presumably will be unraveled in due course.
The most common assumption among the political analysts has been that Giuliani and Trump are trying to finesse the campaign finance issue for both Cohen and the president. That may be true, but if so it represents a failure to grasp the bigger picture. It seems highly improbable that the FBI and the U.S. attorney in New York were able to persuade a judge to issue search warrants for the president's lawyer, as they did, if all they were searching for was a single improper campaign contribution.
No, the likeliest scenario is that Giuliani and Trump were sitting around in the Oval brainstorming about the best way to keep Cohen from flipping, and this is what they came up with. The president's good friend David Pecker had thrown Cohen to the wolves on the front page of the National Enquirer
and Giuliani probably convinced Trump that they needed to do a little fence-mending. This is definitely not the kind of strategy you'd talk about with your real lawyers or the White House communications shop.
MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace spoke with sources close to Trump who said that the dynamic duo's "ultimate goal, ultimate prize is to provide some cover, politically, legally, psychically, cosmically, emotionally for Michael Cohen." The Washington Post's Ashley Parker reported on Wallace's show that there were three camps in the White House on this subject. The first camp thinks the two duffers were chewing the fat and just decided to "do something" and there really wasn't much of a strategy at all. Another camp believes the Cohen campaign finance story was the real motivation. Then there's the third camp, which suggests that all this is really about Trump's emotional needs:
All along, the president has craved someone out there being aggressive and it's sort of the emotional strategy and emotional response that the president desires. It may not be great politically and it may create a lot of headaches for his staff but it's nice to have someone finally out there defending him and it sort of scratches that itch that he has and often exhibits on Twitter.
I suspect that last has a great deal to do with it. But that doesn't mean Giuliani and Trump aren't trying to respond to a very serious problem. According to an unnamed source
quoted by Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo, who identifies himself or herself as "steeped in anti-corruption enforcement," this little scam about Cohen's "retainer" speaks to a system for getting money to people "while insulating and giving deniability to the ultimate payor of the bribe." Using a "dirty lawyer as a bagman provides a number of advantages," the source explains. Bribe or blackmail money can be laundered as "legal services" and businesses can write them off as expenses, which would be tax evasion. Needless to say, attorney-client privilege provides the perfect mechanism to conceal such an illegal arrangement.
Rudy Giuliani was once the New York U.S. attorney himself, so he must know this could be a red flag for criminal behavior. But he's deep into Trump's alternate reality today. They are two of a kind, close in age, scrappy New Yorkers who have become vulnerable to paranoia and conspiracy theories in their later years. They are both clearly in over their heads but are too egotistical to admit it. Giuliani's display this week could be a lethal blow to this White House.