The Trump team's amazing, evolving Russia defense

When it comes to the Russia investigation, it's not so much that the Trump team has a habit of "moving the goalposts,...

Posted: May 21, 2018 1:34 PM
Updated: May 21, 2018 1:34 PM

When it comes to the Russia investigation, it's not so much that the Trump team has a habit of "moving the goalposts," but that those goalposts have been rigged to roller skates and pushed downhill toward what feels like an inevitable end: where no matter what special counsel Robert Mueller finds, Trump will declare himself vindicated.

"No collusion," has been Trump's constant battle cry - he's tweeted it dozens of times since taking office -- even as he diminishes the status of aides ensnared in the probe (see: former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos) to downplay their influence and the suggestion of, yes, collusion.

But to get a real sense of the degree and frequency with which the White House's story has changed, we need to rewind the tape back to just days after the 2016 election.

When Russian officials claimed their "experts" and "specialists on the US" had been in contact with people from both the Trump and Clinton camps, former Trump spokeswoman and erstwhile White House communications director Hope Hicks rejected the reports outright.

"It never happened," she told the Associated Press. "There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign."

That was then. Over the subsequent 18 months, accounts of who from the Trump campaign met with whom, when, and for what reasons, have either conveniently evolved or reversed themselves entirely. Only the trajectory has remained the same, as Trump and his associates, with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani the most recent example, continuously raising the bar - which is almost out of sight now -- for what they would accept as proof of wrongdoing.

The unqualified denials would soften over time. Even after it was revealed that his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had misled the White House about his post-election contacts with the Russian ambassador, Trump at a press conference told reporters, "I have nothing to do with Russia," adding: "To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does."

A few days later, on February 20, 2017, Sarah Sanders, then the deputy press secretary, echoed Trump.

"This is a non-story," she said, "because to the best of our knowledge, no contacts took place, so it's hard to make a comment on something that never happened." Shortly after, in March, Donald Trump Jr. told The New York Times that while he probably met during the campaign "with people that were Russian," nothing was never "set up" -- at least "none that I can think of at the moment. And certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form."

But those assertions were blown up a few months later, when the Times first reported on the campaign brain trust's meeting with a Russian lawyer, among others, at Trump Tower in June 2016. After releasing a public statement downplaying the gathering as brief and "introductory," focused on adoption policy, Trump Jr. changed his tune.

Here are two of his statements -- which we learned later on had been crafted with the guidance of his father and White House aides -- in response to the initial report, side-by-side:

A few days later, Trump Jr. decided to release the emails leading up to the meeting ahead of news outlets, effectively confirming reports he'd initially denied. Perhaps the most memorable exchange came right at the beginning, on June 3, 2016, when British publicist Rob Goldstone informed Trump Jr. that someone with ties to the Russian government had "some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."

Trump Jr. replied that he was traveling but would be available the next week and, memorably, "if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer." The meeting would take place on June 9, with Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort also on hand. There's no evidence Trump was ever informed about what took place, but Trump Jr. did make three calls, in total, to blocked numbers before and after the meeting.

Who was on the other line? Talking to congressional investigators, Trump Jr. said he didn't remember.

The mixed, and ultimately misleading, initial public messages about the Trump Tower meeting marked the unofficial end of the blanket denial era.

They've also worked overtime to muddy the waters, litigating the meaning of "collusion" and often adding, as Trump did during an interview with the Times in late December, that "even if there was (collusion), it's not a crime."

"For something to be a crime, there has to be a statute that you claim is being violated," Trump's personal lawyer in the Russia investigation told CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, in a New Yorker story from earlier that month. "There is not a statute that refers to criminal collusion. There is no crime of collusion."

And that's true, up to a point. There is nothing in the criminal code that forbids or even legally defines "collusion." As former FBI director James Comey put it during a CNN town hall last month, "collusion is actually not a thing that exists under the federal laws of the United States. I had never heard the term until it appeared in the media." Still, the framing of the conversation has - with a push from the Trump team - now moved from, as Hicks put it, "There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign," to the suggestion that, even if there was, it wasn't necessarily illegal.

Fast forward now a few months -- with a few more lawyers quitting in the meantime -- to the last couple weeks, as Giuliani emerged as the public face of Trump's defense. The big picture has become more complicated over time, with the emergence of Stormy Daniels and new revelations about Michael Cohen, the Trump lawyer who paid in October 2016 to keep Daniels quiet about an alleged, decade-old affair with Trump. (The President has since reimbursed him.) But even with so much changing, the tactic has largely remained the same.

Over the past several days, Giuliani has argued that, even as Trump claims to be raring for a sitdown with Mueller and his team, the investigators do not have the power to compel his testimony. It's a legally dubious assertion given that past presidents have been subject to subpoenas, though none was compelled to sit down for an interview as part of a criminal investigation.

Whether Trump could be indicted is a stickier question. Giuliani told CNN last week that the Mueller team had "acknowledged" such a move wasn't on the table. "All they get to do is write a report," Giuliani said. "They can't indict. At least they acknowledged that to us after some battling, they acknowledged that to us." But there is no settled law here, just past DOJ opinions.

That's the status quo. The rest is just posturing. On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Mueller's appointment, Giuliani pretty well summed up the state of Trump's defense during an appearance on Fox News.

"When I ran (for office), they were looking for dirt on me every day. That's what you do. Maybe you shouldn't. But you do it," he said. "There is nothing illegal about that. Even if it comes from a Russian or a German or American, it doesn't matter."

That, crossed with Trump's long and ongoing Twitter campaign to discredit the probe as a "witch hunt," is the long and short of it. For all the drama and infighting, Trump and his team, even as it changes, has proven to be both agile and, well, creative.

No matter what comes down the pike, they have a rationalization or deflection ready to go -- even when it goes against the substance of what they once claimed.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 46387

Reported Deaths: 2662
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11434680
Lake4985241
Elkhart313343
Allen2695117
St. Joseph185766
Cass16369
Hamilton1502100
Hendricks1371100
Johnson1244118
Porter69037
Tippecanoe6598
Madison64363
Clark62744
Bartholomew58044
Howard55057
LaPorte54125
Kosciusko5003
LaGrange4646
Jackson4583
Vanderburgh4576
Noble45128
Delaware42949
Boone42743
Hancock42535
Marshall4183
Shelby41825
Floyd37044
Morgan32331
Montgomery29020
Grant28726
Clinton2812
Monroe26328
Dubois2616
White25910
Decatur24732
Henry23615
Lawrence23624
Vigo2278
Harrison20822
Warrick20729
Dearborn20622
Greene18432
Miami1802
Jennings16911
Putnam1658
DeKalb1594
Scott1557
Daviess13916
Orange13323
Wayne1296
Franklin1248
Steuben1242
Perry1239
Ripley1148
Jasper1132
Carroll1092
Wabash1092
Fayette967
Newton9610
Whitley814
Randolph774
Starke773
Huntington702
Wells681
Jay670
Fulton661
Jefferson661
Washington651
Knox630
Pulaski621
Clay594
Rush563
Benton480
Adams471
Gibson462
Owen451
Sullivan441
Brown381
Blackford372
Posey360
Spencer331
Tipton301
Crawford290
Fountain292
Switzerland260
Martin220
Parke220
Ohio140
Warren141
Union130
Vermillion130
Pike80
Unassigned0193

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 52865

Reported Deaths: 2876
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin9338407
Cuyahoga7013366
Hamilton5224198
Marion273138
Lucas2628302
Pickaway217641
Summit1969206
Montgomery178426
Mahoning1752228
Butler144844
Columbiana120960
Stark1052112
Lorain96267
Trumbull86362
Warren75721
Clark7399
Belmont53421
Delaware51815
Tuscarawas51510
Fairfield50316
Medina49132
Lake44316
Miami44231
Ashtabula42144
Portage41858
Licking41611
Geauga39042
Wood38451
Clermont3566
Wayne35452
Richland3185
Allen29740
Mercer2728
Darke23625
Erie22922
Greene2229
Holmes2043
Madison1888
Huron1772
Crawford1357
Ottawa13023
Washington12720
Sandusky12213
Morrow1151
Putnam11516
Hardin11312
Ross1092
Auglaize993
Monroe8617
Coshocton811
Jefferson802
Union801
Hancock761
Hocking767
Muskingum731
Preble661
Lawrence650
Williams652
Clinton620
Guernsey603
Shelby594
Logan581
Wyandot584
Fulton570
Ashland551
Brown531
Carroll513
Defiance483
Fayette460
Highland431
Knox391
Champaign381
Athens371
Scioto360
Seneca332
Perry301
Henry290
Van Wert270
Paulding230
Vinton222
Adams211
Pike200
Jackson170
Gallia141
Harrison121
Meigs110
Noble110
Morgan90
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
90° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 91°
Angola
Clear
88° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 90°
Huntington
Scattered Clouds
92° wxIcon
Hi: 91° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 93°
Decatur
Scattered Clouds
91° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 91°
Van Wert
Scattered Clouds
91° wxIcon
Hi: 96° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 91°
Hot & Humid Weekend
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events