Earlier this week, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Rudy Giuliani, who has served as one of President Donald Trump’s lawyers since April, is falling out of favor in the White House because of a “series of erratic television interviews” this week. “Trump thinks he’s saying too much,” an unnamed source told Sherman. This is a story we’ve heard before: Back in May, the Associated Press reported that Trump was “growing increasingly irritated with lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s frequently off-message media blitz.” And it is a story we’ll probably hear again.
It’s all noise.
The Russia investigation’s myriad threads can be overwhelming to follow, even for the most dedicated observer. The intense secrecy surrounding special counsel Robert Mueller’s work, while giving him a degree of insulation from political attacks, has also made it hard for the public to discern where his investigation stands and where it’s headed. After all, it’s not just Mueller and his team who aren’t talking; few of his targets are, either. Into that epistemic void leaped Giuliani, who gives journalists a steady streams of quotes and comments about the investigation.
This dynamic is increasingly untenable for journalists—or ought to be. Giuliani’s statements cannot be verified, since Mueller would never confirm or deny them, and his modus operandi is clear. He says outlandish things, like that presidents can “probably” pardon themselves or that Trump couldn’t be prosecuted if he murdered James Comey, in order to control the news cycle and muddle the narrative about the Russia investigation, the hush money to former mistresses, and so on.
Finding the signal in this noise is easy enough: Ignore Rudy Giuliani, and pay attention to the narratives that aren’t making daily headlines.
Giuliani’s strategy largely works because his relative fame qualifies him as a newsmaker, and because most other figures in the investigation—including Trump’s other lawyers—are keeping a low profile. It’s also a strategy that Giuliani himself acknowledges.
In June, the Justice Department’s inspector general released a long-awaited report that criticized FBI officials for their conduct during the 2016 election. That evening, Giuliani took to Fox News to demand that Sessions and Rosenstein “suspend” Mueller and shut down the Russia investigation. He also said that Peter Strzok, a former FBI agent who sent texts criticizing Trump during the election, “should be in jail by the end of the week.” These remarks received wide coverage: The New Yorker described the assertion as a “moment of truth for the Republican Party,” while Politico wrote that it represented a “major turning point for the Trump lawyer.” The following week, Giuliani admitted to Politico that his bombastic remarks were a stunt to undermine the Russia investigation’s credibility. “That’s what I’m supposed to do,” he told the reporters. “What am I supposed to say? That they should investigate him forever? Sorry, I’m not a sucker.”
The trend continues. Last month, CNN obtained a recording made by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in which he and Trump discussed payments to silence one of his former sexual partners on the eve of the election. The tape’s release was objectively bad news for the president. At a minimum, it conclusively proved that the White House had repeatedly lied about Trump’s foreknowledge of the payments. Giuliani quickly offered a different, credulity-straining version of events: that the tape proved Trump was doing the right thing, by counseling his lawyer to keep the payments above-board. (Whether that’s true is hard to discern due to poor audio quality.)
It’s hardly unusual for someone in Trump’s orbit to mislead reporters and the American public. What sets Giuliani apart is the speed and scale with which he accomplishes these feats. Sherman’s piece came after the former mayor gave a series of madcap, contradictory interviews on Monday. At one point during his whirlwind media tour, Giuliani made the audacious and misleading claim that collusion with foreign powers to win an election is “not a crime,” which dominated headlines for days. At another point, he suggested that Trump may have played a greater role in the infamous Trump Tower meeting in 2016 than was previously known.
What’s more, Giuliani often tells reporters versions of events that can’t be readily corroborated, especially when it comes to Mueller’s activities. Could Trump face criminal charges from the special counsel? Giuliani told The New York Times in May that Mueller’s team has assured him they won’t indict a sitting president. How long will the Russia investigation last? Giuliani said a few days later that the special counsel’s office is aiming to wrap up the obstruction-related part of his inquiry by Labor Day. And because Mueller only speaks publicly through indictments and court filings, there’s no way to tell if Giuliani’s claims are accurate.
To a certain extent, Giuliani is just doing his job: defending his client and discrediting the prosecutor. But there’s also more than just the usual defense work at play here. Shortly after Giuliani joined Trump’s legal team, I noted that he appeared to be managing his presidential client through his media appearances, using his public stature to change the narrative surrounding the Russia investigation. “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,” he told The Washington Post shortly after taking the job.
Giuliani isn’t the first lawyer who’s tried to placate Trump with short-term reassurances for long-term legal problems. Ty Cobb and John Dowd, who led the president’s legal team until this spring, kept reassuring Trump and the public that Mueller’s inquiry would wrap up by Thanksgiving, then by Christmas. That timetable was never realistic: The Watergate investigations lasted for more than four years, while the Whitewater probe spanned most of Bill Clinton’s tenure in office. Some observers have speculated that Trump’s periodic eruptions against Mueller—most recently, his demand this week that Sessions shut down the Russia investigation—stem from learning that his expectations don’t match with reality.
Instead of Giuliani’s media sprees and Trump’s remarks, there are three ongoing threads that deserve closer scrutiny. While they only offer a partial window into how Mueller is pursuing his investigation, these glimpses may indicate where the inquiry will go next. Foremost among those threads is Roger Stone. The veteran GOP political operative and longtime Trump adviser played a peripheral role in Trump’s 2016 campaign. Now he appears to be squarely in Mueller’s sights.
In 2016, Stone exchanged messages with Guccifer 2.0, a purported Romanian hacker who played a key role in distributing stolen emails from the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign during the election. In an indictment unsealed last month, Mueller declared that Guccifer 2.0 was actually a persona adopted by Russian government hackers who had undermined Clinton’s presidential bid. Stone has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and claimed that he did not know who Guccifer really was.
Mueller has so far sought or obtained testimony and evidence from nearly a dozen people close to the longtime Republican political operative, including former Trump advisers Sam Nunberg and Michael Caputo. In April, the Guardian reported that federal agents stopped Ted Malloch, a professor and political consultant with ties to Stone, at Boston’s Logan Airport and asked him about his interactions with Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Malloch told the newspaper that the agents “seemed to know everything about me.” Reuters reported in May that Mueller had issued subpoenas to Jason Sullivan, a social-media consultant who worked with Stone. This week, a federal judge rejected Stone aide Andrew Miller’s effort to quash a subpoena for him to appear before the grand jury.
Mueller’s activities don’t necessarily mean that Stone will be indicted, and it’s unclear what he would be charged with. The sequence of events and the use of a grand jury instead of less formal interviews mirrors the run-up to last year’s indictment of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and his former deputy, Rick Gates. In the months before Mueller filed formal charges, multiple aides close to Manafort testified before a grand jury. Manafort is currently on trial in northern Virginia for some of those charges; another trial in D.C. is scheduled for next month.
A second thread of interest worth watching relates to a secret meeting in the Seychelles between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian banker in 2017. In March, the Post reported that unidentified witnesses have told Mueller that the meeting was set up to establish a back channel between the Trump administration and the Kremlin for unknown purposes. Prince, who is the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has denied those allegations. A spokesman told reporters in April that Prince gave the special counsel’s office “total access” to his phones and computer.
Finally, it’s worth following the mercurial story surrounding that Trump Tower meeting in 2016 between Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and top Trump campaign officials, including Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., and son-in-law Jared Kushner. A lawyer for Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, who played a role in setting up the meeting, said earlier this week that the special counsel’s office wants to interview his client—a sign of Mueller’s continued interest in one of the key moments so far in the Trump-Russia saga.
Making matters worse for Trump are reports that Michael Cohen is willing to testify that the president knew about the meeting in advance. In this week’s media tour to dispute Cohen’s claims, Giuliani appeared to disclose the existence of a pre-meeting among Trump campaign staffers. The dueling accounts suggest that the story surrounding the Trump Tower meeting could change yet again. If those comments ultimately shed more light on that famous encounter in the summer of 2016, the slip-up may be Giuliani’s most substantive contribution to public discourse all year.