Even for a White House defined by intense disorder, the tumult kicked up by Rudy Giuliani on Wednesday night and Thursday morning has been viewed internally as staggering.
In one softball interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s new lawyer managed to contradict his new client’s public statements, potentially open him up to new legal jeopardy, undercut weeks’ worth of strategy and communications devised by Trump’s senior staff, and do it all without consulting, and to the utter bewilderment of, top officials in the West Wing.
Some of those senior aides watched Giuliani’s interview in real time wondering what the hell was going on.
“Was he supposed to do that?” one blindsided White House official said, when asked about Giuliani’s comments on Wednesday evening shortly after the interview aired.
It’s still not entirely clear what the answer is. Giuliani’s comments provided little additional clarity and culminated in even more drama: an NBC News report that the feds had tapped the phones of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s besieged personal attorney and longtime fixer who also recently gave legal advice to Hannity. Even Giuliani was caught off guard by that bit of news, prompting him to insist that it couldn’t possibly be true.
“Us lawyers have talked about it, we don’t believe it’s true,” the former New York City mayor told The Daily Beast in a phone conversation on Thursday. “We think it’s going to turn out to be untrue because it would be totally illegal. You can’t wiretap a lawyer, you certainly can’t wiretap his client who’s not involved in the investigation.”
Giuliani was correct, though not necessarily on the merits. Recordings of attorney-client communications are admissible under certain circumstances, as Giuliani surely knows. As a U.S. attorney in the late 1980s, he successfully used such recordings to prosecute high-ranking members of the Italian mob.
Wiretapping etiquette aside, Thursday’s media blitz by the former New York City mayor marked another day in the life in a Trump era peppered by internal chaos erupting into public view. And the scramble among aides to provide a semblance of order to the madness only exposed the deep holes that remain among the president’s political and legal operations.
Giuliani appeared, at times, to be flying completely solo, albeit with the president’s blessing. He upended weeks of White House talking points by claiming that Trump had reimbursed Cohen for the $130,000 in hush money he paid to porn star Stormy Daniels in October 2016. Neither White House counsel Don McGahn nor Emmet Flood, who joined Trump’s legal team this week, were aware of that fact until Giuliani blurted it out, according to a Thursday report from The Washington Post.
Giuliani went on to insist that Cohen’s payments to Daniels were merely personal expenses unrelated to the election. But by Thursday morning, he intimated that the opposite was true. “Imagine if that came out of October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton,” he said on Trump’s favorite morning program, Fox & Friends. “Cohen made it go away. He did his job.”
Senior White House staffers were forced to watch Giuliani’s media rounds to stay apprised of the latest developments in the controversy. One senior Trump aide bluntly assessed, “Rudy pulls a Trump,” denoting a surprising, extremely public undercutting of official strategy and messaging.
By Thursday, the extent to which the rest of the White House staff had been left utterly in the dark became clear. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Giuliani’s admission was the first she’d heard of Trump repaying Cohen. (In early March, Sanders said she wasn’t aware of Trump knowing about the hush money when Cohen paid it. Last month, when Trump was asked on Air Force One, “did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?” the president replied: “No.”)
Forced to adapt to a changing storyline, White House allies and media surrogates began suggesting that there was a hidden brilliance to the former New York mayor’s performance. The Giuliani interview, former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a prominent Trump surrogate, told The Daily Beast, was “a lot more disciplined than people give it credit for.”
“While everyone is talking about the [Michael Cohen] retainer, [Rudy] was also sending a signal to the Mueller team, as far as I could see,” Kingston said. “There was stuff in there beyond the Michael Cohen-Stormy Daniels discussion that everybody is focusing on. And I think an experienced guy like Rudy who… knows how to get the public’s attention, underneath the sizzle, I think there was some really serious stuff that was out there. For example... he said [fired FBI Director James] Comey was a liar, and surely you’re not gonna use him as a credible witness.”
As Trump’s representatives made the case that what was really happening was a game of four-dimensional chess, the president was busying himself with an event of a decidedly different tone. Between Giuliani’s last Fox interview and Sanders’ daily press briefing, Trump gathered with faith leaders in the Rose Garden to recognize this year’s National Day of Prayer.
—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff