Rudy Giuliani has quickly become a ubiquitous media presence since joining President Donald Trump’s legal team for the sprawling Russia investigation. In just a few weeks, the former New York City mayor has disclosed the president’s reimbursements to legal fixer Michael Cohen in the Stormy Daniels hush-money saga, and shared seemingly exculpatory details from his ongoing conversations with special counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump’s previous lawyers mostly shunned the spotlight. The fact that Giuliani is seeking it out is probably not an accident. A year’s worth of reporting on the White House has made clear that the most formidable task faced by Trump’s lawyers isn’t the FBI, the Justice Department, the special counsel’s office, multiple congressional committees, or his previous sexual partners—it’s the president himself. Now it’s Giuliani’s turn to manage the president’s expectations.
In his monthlong tenure, Giuliani has adopted the tactics and tone of Trump White House staffers past and present: performing on TV as if only the boss is watching, placating him with firm but meaningless deadlines, and making audacious statements to turn the media narrative in Trump’s favor. That is, Giuliani seems to be addressing not voters, or even Republicans in Congress, but an audience of one. If that’s true, it raises the question of whether Trump’s lawyers are focusing too much on Trump’s perceptions of Mueller’s investigation and not enough on the investigation itself.
Giuliani has relayed what appears to be an endless stream of good news from Mueller’s office. Last week, he announced that Mueller would abide by existing Justice Department precedents and forego a criminal indictment of Trump. (Why Giuliani would tell reporters this, instead of asserting that his client is innocent, is a mystery.) He made the dubious claim that Mueller can’t subpoena Trump, either. Most recently, he told reporters over the weekend that if Trump agreed to an interview with Mueller, the special counsel would wrap up the obstruction portion of his investigation by September 1 to avoid influencing the election.
Mueller may well have said these things, but Giuliani’s recounting of them shouldn’t be accepted at face value. It’s in his interest to highlight whatever’s most favorable to his client and keep quiet about the rest. The day after Giuliani revealed the Cohen reimbursements, Trump himself said that Giuliani “needs to get his facts straight.” And since Mueller and his team aren’t talking, there’s no way to verify what Giuliani says. (An unnamed U.S. official who is reportedly familiar with Mueller’s inquiry told Reuters the September 1 deadline was “entirely made up” by Giuliani.)
It wouldn’t be the first time that Trump’s inner circle used misdirection to placate the president. John Dowd and Ty Cobb, two former members of the president’s legal team, also tried to reassure Trump and the public that the investigation’s end was in sight. “I’d be embarrassed if this is still haunting the White House by Thanksgiving and worse if it’s still haunting him by year end,” Cobb told Reuters last August. As that date neared, they shifted gears to say it would be over by Christmas. When those deadlines came and went, so did they: Dowd left in March, followed by Cobb in May.
This optimism was coupled with a negative campaign directed at Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, and the Justice Department as a whole. Trump’s defenders on Fox News and in other conservative media outlets spent the last year building a case that the special counsel’s office was the tip of a “deep state” spear aimed at bringing down the Trump administration. As The Atlantic’s David Graham noted on Monday, those themes are crowding out the White House’s earlier message that Trump had committed no crimes. “Underneath the chaos,” he wrote, “it’s becoming possible to discern a fresh Trump legal strategy since the president shook up his team. On the one hand, Trump’s lawyers say they continue to work with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. At the same time, they are pursuing a fresh line of attack in public, shifting from proclaiming the president’s innocence to attempting to undermine the probe itself.”
Trump reportedly keeps close tabs on his subordinates’ media performances—and their professional fortunes rise and fall accordingly. Sean Spicer flamed out as the White House press secretary in record time with a series of attacks on the media that failed to satisfy his hypercritical boss. Policy adviser Stephen Miller adopted the same tactics with more success in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper in January, flattering Trump as a “political genius” while attacking the network for reporting errors. “There’s one viewer that you care about right now and you’re being obsequious,” Tapper told Miller shortly before cutting the interview short.
Television isn’t just a medium for flattering the president, but influencing him. Trump frequently tweets in real time during his morning viewings of Fox & Friends, underscoring the outsized role the show plays in shaping his thinking. Fox News guests take advantage of the opportunity by advising the president on a host of issues. Lobbyists even recently ran ads on the channel during Trump’s typical viewing hours to influence his trade policy.
It’s no wonder that even one of the president’s lawyers may be adopting similar tactics. Giuliani is well aware of the power he wields through the media. “I’ll give you the conclusion: We all feel pretty good that we’ve got everything kind of straightened out and we’re setting the agenda,” Giuliani told The Washington Post after his initial foray into the Michael Cohen saga. “Everybody’s reacting to us now, and I feel good about that because that’s what I came in to do.” That might work for the president and it may even work for the American people. But it won’t work on Robert Mueller.