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 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 said, 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 called this “categorically untrue.”)
Second, and even more intriguingly, Giuliani said 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 called the pre-meeting “a figment of” Cohen’s “imagination, or his lying.”)
However, Giuliani said he had learned all this from reporters who have called Trump’s team with questions (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 regarding 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 in to 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 said Cohen’s team is claiming:
1) That Cohen was there when Don Jr. allegedly told Trump about the meeting: According to Giuliani, Cohen “leaked” that while he was meeting with Trump in his office, Don Jr. walked in to tell Donald about the Russian offer and meeting. Giuliani told CNN:
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 said he had 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):
Giuliani later clarified exactly what he meant, to Fox News:
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 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 would 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 attendees of the alleged 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 in the fact of 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.