By JULES WITCOVER
After more than a year of deceptive bobbing and weaving in the Robert Mueller investigation, President Trump has bought into the strategy that best suits his personal style: standing and fighting back.
In buying into the modus operandi of his latest defense lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump has taken on a kindred soul, who agrees that the best defense is a good offense. He has unleashed a veteran political street fighter whose own philosophy of strike first and think later, if at all, fits snugly with the president’s own.
Giuliani, for months preferring to remain an outsider in the Trump camp, has now decided to join it with an opening salvo in the friendly confines of Fox News. He has acknowledged that Trump did authorize the $130,000 hush-money payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels while still denying a long-past sexual encounter with her.
Giuliani appears to have convinced Trump that the best way to get rid of this messy episode is to fess up about it, and then argue no campaign money was involved, thus hopefully disposing of any legal threat.
The obvious price Trump has to pay in this strategy is that he must contradict his statement to a reporter in a recent Air Force One Q-and-A exchange that he knew nothing about the $130,000 payoff or who paid it. Trump referred the questioner to his private business lawyer, Michael Cohen, now hung out to dry by his client’s admission.
It may be that Giuliani and Trump have concluded that the president’s penchant for dealing in falsehoods, ranging from harmless fibs to monumental whoppers, has so inured American voters to his practice that there remains little downside to a few more outright lies from the president.
It’s also true that evading the truth to deceive the public and escape political punishment was not invented by Donald Trump. Nearly two decades ago, predecessor Bill Clinton got away with it in his infamous televised insistence that “I never had sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” He was impeached by the House but was acquitted by the Senate and finished his second term with a solid approval rating in public polls.
Clinton, however, weathered the storm by continuing to conduct his full-time job with due responsibility, relatively free of the sort of other distractions that have plagued the Trump White House and administration from the start. A week does not go by now without some new evidence of chaos and Trump’s mismanagement of the nation’s business.
Giuliani, in an interview with the Washington Post, seemed to take on the movie vernacular of the mob world, saying at one point that Cohen “didn’t have to ask” why he was being asked to pay the hush money. “Cohen made it go away,” he said. “He did his job.”
The former mayor of New York, now practicing law there, told the Post that Trump paid Cohen a monthly retainer of $35,000, and that the payment to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, probably came out of that amount. It was, he said, like “other things of a personal matter that he took care of, for which the president would have always trusted him as his lawyer, as my clients do with me, and that was paid out of the rest of the money. And Michael would earn a fee out of it.”
Giuliani also told the Post his intent was to signal to Mueller: “Don’t chase (that angle). We spend so much time chasing windmills … I don’t think … neither one of them thought of it as a campaign thing. They thought of it a personal thing; personal reputation, family, wife, harassment charge. She didn’t want a lot of money. Pay her. Let her go away. Follow me?”
That comment seemed to explain why Giuliani was willing to admit the payment. Whether Mueller will buy it and drop that pursuit is another question. There are many others for him to chase.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at [email protected].