Trump in crisis turns to controversial former mayor for legal aid in bid to shake off Russia probe.
Tactics are temporary, temperament is permanent. Bear that in mind as Donald Trump changes his tune on sacking special counsel Robert Mueller and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
It’s a tactical switch, a mood music shift that can be summed up — temporarily, anyway – in two words. Rudy Giuliani.
Hiring the flamboyant, controversial former New York mayor, past presidential candidate, ex-US attorney and television-savvy performer to spearhead his legal team comes with one core mission in The Donald’s mind: ‘Rudy, help me get Mueller and his Russian Connection probe off my back asap.’
Trump’s frustration had reached boiling point over the arguments and conflicting advice among his existing small army of legal advisers, together with newspaper and news channel stories focusing on the number of big-name, heavy-hitter attorneys declining to represent him.
Giuliani replaces white collar crime expert John Dowd as Trump’s numero uno lawyer. Dowd quit in March after publicly calling for Mueller’s investigation to be scrapped, then announcing it was a personal view he hadn’t run by the president. Now, however, Dowd is telling friends Trump did indeed approve his remarks in advance.
The Giuliani hire deal was struck over a private dinner at Mar-a-Lago, tucked in between POTUS’s formal meetings with visiting Japanese prime minister Abe. Afterwards Trump bragged to one confidant that he’d got ‘America’s f**king mayor’ to silence his critics and speed up ‘lifting the Mueller shadow’ from his presidency. He then tweeted: ‘Rudy is great. He’s been my friend for a long time and wants to get this matter resolved quickly for the good of the country.’
Certainly Giuliani is wasting no time. He plans to meet special counsel Mueller and his team of prosecutors within days to reopen stalled negotiations on whether the president will voluntarily sit down for an under-oath interview and the terms and timescale involved.
Negotiations apparently broken off angrily after the Mueller-approved FBI raid on the offices of the president’s long-time personal attorney Michael Cohen and the seizure of documents relating to pay-offs to a porn star and ex-Playboy playmate and to Trump family business dealings dating back decades.
With an optimism perplexing most legal experts, Giuliani told interviewers resolving the crisis ‘only needs a little push. But I don’t think it’s going to take more than a week or two to get a resolution. I’m going to ask Mueller, ‘what do you need to wrap it up?”
At best, according to legal experts, Giuliani could be talking about resolving the question of whether POTUS agrees to be quizzed by Mueller – a question that has been dividing The Donald’s existing team for months, with some arguing that his volatile and egotistical personality carries too big a risk of Trump perjuring himself.
But the notion of Giuliani as the genius who can swiftly stuff the twin peril genies of Russian Connection meddling in the 2016 presidential election and obstruction of justice issues back in the bottle (as some Trump loyalists suggest) appears fanciful.
With May marking the first anniversary of the special counsel investigation being launched in the wake of the president’s sacking of FBI director James Comey, most legal observers back the view of former Obama administration attorney general Eric Holder who says Mueller is ‘moving almost at light speed in what they’ve done in the first year’ of such a complex and crucial investigation. Holder predicted that the special counsel probe would probably take at least two years to complete.
‘You’re building from the bottom up. You build the case that you can and try to flip people until you work your way up to the top, it’s a classic public corruption case,’ argues Holder.
That prospect terrifies not just POTUS but the Republican party hierarchy as they look ahead to both this November’s mid-terms congressional and the 2020 presidential election and whether to throw their support behind an incumbent running for re-election who could conceivably remain under intense investigation. Some senior GOP figures are actively considering challenging Trump for the party’s presidential nomination in that scenario.
Another motive for Trump’s appointment of Giuliani? It’s suggested, is that he could have a ‘special relationship’ with Robert Mueller that could speed up the investigation and smooth over some of the ranting hostility toward him displayed by the president and some of his previous legal advisers.
A notion based upon the fact that Giuliani and Mueller worked together as high-ranking justice department officials in the Reagan era and then again after the 9/11 New York terrorist outrage when the former was the city’s high-profile city mayor and the latter the head of the investigating FBI. It was at that time Giuliani crassly seized on the PR pitch casting him as ‘America’s mayor’.
Both men are registered Republicans but no one who knows ‘straight shooter’ Mueller well seriously believes presidential hopes of any ‘old pals’ act’ favours being done are on the cards.
But another big decision day looms in July for both sides, too. That’s when the special counsel must provide deputy attorney general Rosenstein with a status report. It will then be up to Rosenstein to make two big decisions: Whether to give Robert Mueller the green light to continue his $1million-a-month probe and whether to make that progress report public.
Capitol Hill is rife with rumours of another reason for POTUS toning down his personal attacks on Mueller and Rosenstein (while continuing to rage against former FBI chief Comey and his best-selling book, A Higher Loyalty). Rosenstein’s boss attorney general Jeff Sessions, once Trump’s most influential political backer when he was a senator and The Donald an unlikely early candidate for the GOP ticket, told the White House he’d resign if POTUS carried out his threat to sack his deputy or Mueller.
Sessions, remember, recused himself from overseeing the Russian Connection investigation because of his own undeclared links to Russia’s US Ambassador — a decision that invoked Trump’s fire and fury and threats to sack him. Sessions has now himself been interviewed by the Mueller team.
July is a significant date for another reason. It’s when the president’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort is due to face trial on dozens of serious charges, including being a foreign agent for the former pro-Russian Ukraine government, conspiracy to defraud the United States, a $30million money-laundering scheme and tax evasion.
The president’s legal team are sweating on the prospect of Manafort (who has so far resisted) striking a plea bargain deal with the special counsel in return for his co-operation. Manafort’s long-time business partner Rick Gates, who acted as Trump’s deputy campaign manager, has already flipped and is now a whistleblower for Mueller.
Manafort, of course, was a notable attendee at the Trump Tower meeting set up by Donald Trump junior to hear ‘Russian dirt’ being offered on Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
The view of many legal experts is that Mueller now won’t want to even interview the president until after Manafort’s trial … or a plea bargain deal. And, whatever Giuliani may be pitching by way of offers, the special counsel not POTUS can call the schedule shots.
Similarly, alarm bells are ringing over the likelihood of Donald’s Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen ‘flipping’ and doing a plea bargain deal. Friends of Cohen are already hinting he’s moving that way.
All this plays into the president’s appointment of Giuliani whose brash, aggressive style mirrors that of the president himself. At one stage Giuliani acted as a vice-chair of Trump’s post-election transition team and touted himself as a candidate for secretary of state, but — to his chagrin — was overlooked in favour of the now-fired Rex Tillerson.
But he’s remained close to Trump, privately advising him on policy, including the president’s controversial Muslim travel ban legal battles.
Critics and law experts are already warning that Giuliani could yet prove a short-lived and potentially compromised legal kingpin for Trump… and even a witness in any prosecutions brought by Mueller against the president or members of his campaign team or family.
He’s alleged to have been the source of ‘leaks’ from his own FBI contacts on the thorny issue of the investigation into Clinton’s emails that played a pivotal role in the election campaign battle. That role, intriguingly, is an explosive element of Comey’s book criticism of both Trump and Giuliani.
In addition, Giuliani’s New York law firm — from which he’s taken leave of absence -advised Cambridge Analytica, the data-mining firm at the centre of both the US election (and Brexit) meddling furore on its obligations under US campaign law. It has also represented Deutsche Bank in the US—the bank that figures prominently in much of the Special Counsel’s widening investigation into the Trump family’s mystery-shrouded business empire history.
Giuliani was involved in efforts to broker a deal to resolve the case of Turkish-Iranian gold dealer Reza Zarrab, accused of violating US law by helping Iran evade economic sanctions linked to its nuclear programme. He acknowledged in an affidavit last year that he met Turkey’s President Erdogan as part of that effort.
The Zarrab connection is significant because he was also a business associate of Trump’s disgraced former Russia-linked national security adviser General Mike Flynn, another key figure already ‘flipped’ by the Special Counsel in return for a plea bargain pact. It was Trump’s attempt to get James Comey to drop his investigation into Flynn that helped trigger the whole Special Counsel/ Russia Connection investigation.
‘Rudy Giuliani is sufficiently connected to past historical events that both he and Mueller should be on guard against potential conflicts of history’, warns Paul Rosenzweig, a former Special Prosecutor team member during the Clinton/Whitewater investigation.
While Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, points out: ‘The big problem here is how likely Giuliani is to become a witness in the case, whether it be in a grand jury or elsewhere. You can’t be a witness and a lawyer in the same case. That’s the big sticking point’.
Perish the thought that if ‘All the President’s Men’ was the perfect title for the book and movie versions of Richard Nixon’s downfall, the working title for that of Donald Trump should prove to be….All the President’s Lawyers?