The president’s lawyer went on TV, and everyone is confused.

In a series of television appearances on Monday morning, Rudy Giuliani tried to rebut Michael Cohen’s reported claims that Team Trump isn’t telling the whole story about the infamous Trump Tower meeting with a Russian delegation from back in 2016.

But in doing so, Giuliani seemed to reveal new information about just what Cohen, Donald Trump’s former attorney, has been saying — information that had not yet become public.

First, Giuliani fleshed out a report from last week that said Cohen is willing to tell prosecutors that Trump himself knew about the meeting in advance — something Trump has denied.

Specifically, Giuliani says, Cohen is claiming that, while he was meeting with Trump in his office, Donald Trump Jr. walked in and told his father about the planned Russian meeting. (Giuliani calls this “categorically untrue.”)

Second, and even more intriguingly, Giuliani says Cohen is claiming that before the Russian meeting, several Trump aides met without Trump himself for a pre-meeting to discuss “the strategy of the meeting with the Russians” — and, perhaps crucially, that one of those aides was Rick Gates.

If true, that latter claim would be huge because Gates has been cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team for months and would presumably have told them about that meeting long ago, meaning this claim wouldn’t hinge on Cohen’s own credibility. (Giuliani calls the pre-meeting “a figment of” Cohen’s “imagination, or his lying.”)

However, Giuliani says he’s learned all this from reporters who have called Trump’s team to ask, apparently about what Cohen’s team has leaked to them — rather than from Cohen himself. This means Giuliani is spouting thirdhand information, in addition to him generally being rather sloppy with facts. Take it with many grains of salt.

The bigger picture is that there have long been questions about the Trump team’s shifting stories about the Trump Tower meeting, and whether we truly have the full story about what happened there. Further indications that Trump’s team has been lying about or covering up what really happened there would look rather suspicious.

What Giuliani says Cohen’s team is telling reporters

According to Giuliani, Cohen’s team has been making two separate claims about preparations for the Trump Tower meeting. In his morning TV appearances, Giuliani wasn’t clear about how he knew this. But in the afternoon, he called into Fox to say he was describing what he had heard from reporters, not from Cohen or his team directly. In any case, here’s what he had to say:

1) That Cohen was there when Don Jr. allegedly told Trump about the meeting: According to Giuliani, Cohen “leaked” that he was meeting with Trump in his office and Don Jr. walked in to tell Donald about the Russian offer and meeting. Giuliani told CNN:

He said there was a one on one meeting that Donald Jr. came in and told him [Donald Trump] the meeting was about to take place. Well, there are two witnesses that say it didn’t happen [Trump and Don Jr.].

…The one who allegedly told the president about it was Donald [Jr.], which Donald [Jr.] denies, the president denies, and there’s no corroboration of. And Cohen has never said this at any time up until now.

Later in the day, Giuliani added to Fox that this story was “categorically untrue” and “did not happen.”

2) That Cohen attended a meeting with several Trump aides to strategize for the Russian meeting in advance: Then, Giuliani says he’s heard from reporters that Cohen is saying there was a meeting before the Trump Tower meeting, with several Trump aides, about “the strategy of the meeting with the Russians.” He told CNN (emphasis added):

Two days before that he claims there’s a big meeting with five people, he was in the meeting. Only been able to talk to three of the five people in the meeting, and three of the five tell me it didn’t take place. All of them have been under oath on it and the other two couldn’t possibly reveal it because Mueller never asked us about it.

…You get to the other meeting he says he was at, that the president wasn’t at. It’s three or four on one. That’s — he also has added, or Lanny Davis has added — that there was a meeting two days before the meeting took place. With Donald Jr., Jared [Kushner], [Paul] Manafort [pauses, slaps his head, trying to remember] and two others — Gates and one other person. That’s a real meeting, on another provable subject…

…Cohen also now says that — he says too much — that two days before he was participating in a meeting with roughly the same group of people — but not the president, definitely not the president — in which they were talking about the strategy of the meeting with the Russians. The people in that meeting deny it. The people who we’ve been able to interview. The people we’ve not been able to interview have never said that about that meeting.

Giuliani later clarified exactly what he meant, to Fox News:

Second, there was another meeting that has been leaked but hasn’t been public yet. That was an alleged meeting, three days before. According to Cohen, or according to the leak — maybe Cohen will withdraw this, I don’t know, they haven’t pursued it, and the two publications are not going to publish it, I think they’ve found independent contradiction.

He says there was a meeting with Donald Jr., with Jared Kushner, with Paul Manafort, with Gates, and possibly two others, in which they, out of the presence of the president, discussed the meeting with the Russians.

We checked with their lawyers — the ones we could check with, so four of the six. That meeting never, ever took place. It didn’t happen! It’s a figment of his imagination, or his lying. The only meeting they find for that day that included any of these people is a meeting about the Hispanic judge that the president had criticized back around that time.

What does this mean?

First, let’s briefly recap what we do know about the Trump Tower meeting:

  • We know from emails that Don Jr. was offered “information that would incriminate Hillary” that would be “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” and that he responded enthusiastically (“if it’s what you say I love it”).
  • A few days later, a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer showed up to Trump Tower along with four others with Russian ties.
  • They sat down with Don Jr., Kushner, and Manafort (who was Trump’s campaign chair at the time).
  • Everyone involved has claimed for a year that meeting was uneventful and resulted in nothing. Trump himself also dictated a deceptive statement by Don Jr. about the meeting when it first came to light, pretending it was mainly about Russian adoptions.

One question has been what Trump himself knew in advance. And the tale of Cohen just happening to be the only one present when Don Jr. told his dad about the Russian meeting is certainly a convenient one (if that is in fact what Cohen is saying). Cohen’s own word isn’t worth very much, and unless he has corroborating evidence it’s difficult to see how he’ll back it up.

However, Cohen wouldn’t necessarily have that same problem for the pre-meeting, where Trump’s aides (but not Trump) supposedly strategized for it. If Cohen’s story is true, and if Rick Gates was in fact present for such a session, Gates will surely have told Mueller about it already, since he struck a plea deal with the special counsel five months ago.

The idea that Gates might have information about the Trump Tower meeting is quite plausible. Gates was, after all, Paul Manafort’s longtime right-hand-man and protégé, who had worked with him for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine and came with him to the Trump campaign afterward. (Manafort attended the meeting alongside Kushner and Don Jr.)

Giuliani says he checked with most of the alleged attendees of the meeting, and they have denied that it ever happened, through their lawyers. But Trump’s team almost surely would not have been able to check with Gates, since he’s become a cooperating witness. So the credibility of Cohen’s latter claim hinges, essentially, on whether Gates told Mueller about it long ago.

Additionally, Trump’s team has done everything they can to deny the significance of the meeting. Jared Kushner, for one, has claimed he paid little attention to his brother-in-law’s email inviting him to it, and suggested he attended it having little idea of what it would be about. If Kushner had, in fact, attended a strategy meeting beforehand, that would fly against that denial. More broadly, the very existence of a strategy meeting beforehand would suggest that Trump’s team took the Russian offer very seriously indeed.

We should also keep in mind that Cohen is facing very serious legal jeopardy and is evidently trying to save his own skin. Furthermore, there’s something bizarre about this whole spectacle in which Cohen is leaking much of what he says he’ll tell prosecutors to the press, rather than just … telling prosecutors.

The most important question here is not who knew what in advance of the meeting, but instead what truly happened during and after the meeting. If the Trump team’s story is basically correct, and the meeting was an unproductive discussion that led nowhere, it’s difficult to see new revelations about the preparation for it damaging the president all that much. If there is more to what happened, though, this story could be far more consequential.

Author: Andrew Prokop
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