ROBERT COSTA: Damage control. The White House is blindsided by one of the president’s new lawyers. I’m Robert Costa. We examine the extraordinary legal battle on multiple fronts, from Russia to money to Congress, tonight on Washington Week.
RUDY GIULIANI (attorney for President Trump): (From video.) Funneled through the law firm, and then the president repaid it.
MR. COSTA: Former New York Mayor and attorney Rudy Giuliani dropped a bombshell earlier this week. He claimed the president reimbursed his attorney Michael Cohen for a $130,000 payment to an adult film star to buy her silence. That statement about the 2016 campaign contradicted the president’s own words on Air Force One just last month.
REPORTER: (From video.) Did you know about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) No. No. What else?
REPORTER: (From video.) Why did Michael – why did Michael Cohen make it if there was no truth to her allegations?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Well, you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael’s my – an attorney, and you’ll have to ask Michael Cohen.
REPORTER: (From video.) Do you know where he got the money to make that payment?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I don’t know. No.
MR. COSTA: Then, on Friday, Giuliani attempted to clarify that any actions that Cohen took were to protect Mr. Trump’s personal reputation, not a campaign finance violation. But the contradicting statements are raising many new questions.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Witch hunt.
MR. COSTA: The president escalates his attacks on the Justice Department and the Mueller probe after the special counsel warns that he may subpoena Mr. Trump to testify, writing in a tweet “At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!”
We cover it all with Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post, Kimberly Atkins of The Boston Herald, and Jeremy Peters and Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The New York Times.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. It was announced Friday that the unemployment rate fell to 3.9 percent in April, the first time it has dipped below 4 percent since 2000. And possible breakthrough talks with North Korea ahead of a planned presidential summit continue. But, as President Trump left Washington for Dallas to speak to the NRA Convention, those developments and challenges were overshadowed by the legal battles he and his team are waging – at times out of step with each other – and by the ongoing special counsel probe into Russian election interference, an investigation Mr. Trump has long called a cloud over his presidency. That cloud – his words – only seemed to grow this week. Ty Cobb, his lawyer on Russia who preached cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller ahead of a potential presidential interview, resigned. And Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now the president’s lead outside attorney, made a stunning statement on Fox News that Mr. Trump made a series of payments reimbursing his personal lawyer Michael Cohen for a $130,000 settlement with an adult film actress, Ms. Stephanie Clifford, who is also known as Stormy Daniels. That’s despite the president’s assertion last month that he was unaware of the payment.
Giuliani then issued a clarification of sorts on Friday, that read in part: “There is no campaign violation. The payment was made to resolve a personal and false allegation in order to protect the President’s family. It would have been done in any event, whether he was a candidate or not.” He then when on to say: “It is undisputed that the President’s dismissal of former Director Comey – an inferior executive officer – was clearly within his Article II power.”
It was, in short, a torrent of information and news, driven by increasingly combative players that leave many unanswered questions about what’s next for these investigations and for President Trump as he reshuffles his legal team.
Carol, you’ve been talking to Rudy Giuliani, the Post talked to him today. Why did the mayor choose now to try to get out in front of this issue and talk about it as something that wasn’t a campaign finance violation, these payments to Cohen?
CAROL LEONNIG: It really freaked out a lot of people inside the White House, because they didn’t know this was coming on Fox & Friends until they literally turned in – tuned into the show. But clearly, according to some of those advisors who are now trying to get up to speed, what happened was Rudy had had a long conversation with the president about Stormy Daniels and the payment to Cohen. And he decided to get in front and clear up this mess by telling people what had happened, that there had been a repayment. The problem was Rudy created another small mess. Legally you don’t know exactly whether or not it puts the president in more jeopardy, but it clearly muddled the waters in the worst way.
MR. COSTA: When you look, Julie, inside of the White House this week, what’s going on with the president’s legal advice? You have Ty Cobb leaving. He was preaching cooperation with Bob Mueller. Now you have Emmet Flood, a veteran Washington lawyer, coming in to work inside the White House. Yet, as Carol said, there’s Giuliani on the outside working on the personal team. Who’s really leading the legal team, the legal advice?
JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: I mean, I think the legal team is operating as a legal team. They’re trying to advise the president. But you have a president who does not want to be advised particularly. You have a president who feels that he knows the best and has been close to Rudy Giuliani. He felt like that conversation he had with Rudy Giuliani was, you know, a strategy conversation that was going to lead to something that would end up being a better message publicly on all of this than he was getting previously. Part of the problem with the legal team has been that they have been telling the president for months and months and months – or, the previous lawyers had – that, you know, we need to cooperate, we need to give them documents, we need to cooperate with interview requests in order to get this behind you. That is what will clear the air.
And he’s waited and waited and waited for this to go away, and it hasn’t gone away. And he’s increasingly frustrated with that. And so when you have Rudy Giuliani, who he knows very well, coming in and saying: All right, let’s just get this – let’s just get this over with. Let’s just say what it is. We’ll put it out there that you paid it back and it has nothing to do with a legal violation, we’ll just get this off the table, that’s very appealing to the president. And I think they thought that was how it was going to play.
But as Carol said, it’s raised all these new questions. And now you have Emmet Flood and the lawyers who have to deal with the implications feeling very blindsided – not to mention the rest of the staff – feeling like they don’t know what’s actually going on here between the president and Giuliani, and where this is going to go.
MR. COSTA: What’s the credibility cost for the White House, Jeremy, when you think about the conflicting statements the president made in April about Michael Cohen, and now Giuliani coming out with his own statements?
JEREMY PETERS: I mean, to the extent that people didn’t already know that this is a White House that stretches the truth, that puts misinformation out there, that the president himself does that, that the president himself has flatly lied at times, I think this is – this doesn’t change anything, sad as that is, Bob. I think that’s really true, because we’ve known all of this about Trump. We’ve known all this about the people around him, that when his press secretary comes out to the podium every day, she doesn’t really know half the story. And tragically we saw that this week when her credibility I think was even further eroded.
But watching Rudy Giuliani go out there on Sean Hannity the other night and just kind of freestyle is indicative of how this president runs his White House. It’s indicative of how he ran his businesses, how he runs his personal life. I mean, he kind of put it all out there, right? It was free-wheeling. It was unstructured. It was undisciplined. And it put people in legal jeopardy. That’s the story of this White House.
MR. COSTA: That legal jeopardy question. Kim, you’re an attorney. You think about the Comey walk-back today by Giuliani. They’re worried, it seems when you talk to people close to his legal team, that the president could be in some kind of peril legally about obstruction of justice if the intent on the Comey firing last year is seen as something that was done to end the Russia probe, rather than for another reason related to his conduct.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Absolutely. And that’s one of the things that Rudy Giuliani was talking about, giving all these alternate reasons for things like why the president fired Jim Comey. That was different both from what the official reason was given, and also from what the president himself said. He actually confirmed Comey’s own accounts that he was concerned about the president really publicly – wanting Comey to publicly exonerate him in this way.
And I think it’s really interesting that we’ve seen this Rudy Giuliani come in to be – you know, he’s the former prosecutor and he can go in. And he knows Mueller, and he’s going to rein this thing in. But he went from legal position to PR position, and really went back to the Rudy Giuliani that we saw on the campaign trail, just out in full Trump-style saying all of this stuff. And I think it – apparently the president liked it a lot at first, but when he realized how problematic it was, we’ve seen him pull him back in. And that’s why we saw that statement today.
MR. COSTA: Such an important point, Carol, because I kept asking myself this week: Who’s the audience for Giuliani? Is he talking to Mueller? Is this really about reshaping not just the legal battle, but the court of public opinion?
MS. LEONNIG: So you know the answer to that question, Bob, because we’ve been talking about it a lot of times. But, you know, the president wants a TV lawyer. And there’s been a lot of grousing behind the scenes about folks saying, oh, I guess I’m not a TV lawyer. He wants somebody throwing punches on the screen so that the public sees his point of view. And he, for a long time, believed Ty Cobb’s view that you cooperate, you get along, and this cloud will dissipate, and the rain will clear, everything will be great. That didn’t work. He agreed with John Dowd, one of his lead attorneys until he resigned. He agreed that, you know, I shouldn’t probably do that interview. I should just sit tight and see where this all goes. But ultimately, Rudy and the president are perfectly matched, because what are they going to do? Come out slugging on TV. And that’s what he did.
MR. PETERS: Well, think about that clip that you played at the top, where the president turns around immediately, without having to think, when asked: Did you know anything about the Stormy payment? And he says, no. And that right there is the reason why his lawyers think it is a terrible – or any lawyer who knows anything about the facts here – think that it’s a terrible idea to ever sit him down in front of Robert Mueller, because President Trump, as one person who knows him very well explained it to me, is the guy who would pass the lie detector test even when he’s not telling the truth, because he says what he believes to be true in that moment in order to get by.
MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about that, because today the president told reports he’s eager to speak to Mueller, and that he would override the objections of his attorneys.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I would love to go. I would love to speak. But I have to find that we’re going to be treated fairly. Wait, wait. I have to find that we’re going to be treated fairly, because everybody sees it now. And it is a pure witch hunt. Right now, it’s a pure witch hunt.
MR. COSTA: Then, during a speech to the NRA, President Trump told the audience about a federal judge who questioned Special Counsel Mueller’s authority to bring tax and bank fraud charges against the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Julie, we see from the president today in Dallas, he came out swinging on the Mueller probe. And this federal judge is giving him an argument.
MS. DAVIS: Well, it’s true. And when you ask who the audience was for Giuliani’s performance, in a lot of ways I think it’s the president himself. I mean, he has been very frustrated with the way that this has all played. He doesn’t feel like he’s getting his view across. And so you’re seeing him seize on things, like that case, to say, you know, I’m being treated unfairly. I would love to be forthcoming about this, but I just can’t because it’s so unfair. I mean, what his comments indicated today is that his lawyers still are telling him now: Don’t talk to Mueller. That that is now the advice he’s been getting. Because if he’s saying I would overrule my lawyers, then you know the lawyers are telling him this is – this is not a good idea for you.
And the thing that I wonder about, and wondered a lot about after Giuliani finished his interviews, is what is Emmet Flood thinking right now? Because he’s been through impeachment. He’s been through special counsel investigations. He thinks he’s going in to sort of, you know, dig in for the long haul and figure out a strategy to confront all these potential challenges that are coming the president’s way. And if the president is just what – already ready to defy that kind of advice, you don’t know what – I mean, it just begs the question of whether there’s any point in having a legal strategy at all.
MR. COSTA: So what happens then, Kim? Let’s say the president declines formally to do an interview with Bob Mueller. Does Mueller then do a report on the president’s conduct, or could he subpoena the president?
MS. ATKINS: Well, he definitely has subpoena power, but what happens beyond that is a complete open question because it’s never happened before and they’ve never really had to figure it out. There are some DOJ rules that suggest that a president, if he defies a subpoena and Mueller tries to bring a contempt order or file some sort of charge, that the president – a sitting president cannot be charged, but that’s a DOJ opinion. It’s never really been worked through the courts. If that’s pushed, it would have to take it to the Supreme Court to decide. That would delay this whole investigation for that much longer. It’s really unclear what happens, what the endgame is, and what could be brewing in this final battle between President Trump and Robert Mueller.
MR. PETERS: You asked earlier, Bob, about the audience, and I think that Trump’s audience in a lot of these television exchanges and outbursts is his base. He wants to remind them that he is under constant political attack and persecution. And that’s what you saw today when he was speaking to the NRA and he whipped out that piece of paper, and he – and he read from The Wall Street Journal article that quoted the judge saying that Robert Mueller essentially wants to impeach the president. And right there, that was the – that was the a-ha moment for President Trump: See? That’s all the validation he needed. See? Look, even The Wall Street Journal says – even a federal judge says they’re out to get me; remember that every time you hear these phony, fake headlines about this witch hunt of an investigation. They’re out to get me, and by extension they’re out to get you and silence your voice.
MS. LEONNIG: But let’s be clear, I mean, a prosecutor’s job – Judge Ellis made some very good points, and he was really pressing ultimately for the public to know more information. His opinion will be known, ultimately, in his decision that isn’t yet before us. But all prosecutors, what is their job? Squeeze everybody at the low ranks to get higher and higher. What do you think is happening in the Southern District of New York right now? The investigation of Michael Cohen is, while not being run by Mueller, is surely an effort, many sources say, to get Michael Cohen to cooperate in the ultimate, larger, big enchilada of the probe, and the same is true in Manafort’s case.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of that big enchilada of the probe, we learned earlier this week that the Mueller team has provided information to Trump’s lawyers about the kind of topics, the themes they may want to ask about should the president sit. What have we learned?
MS. LEONNIG: So the lists of questions that the president’s lawyers came up with is really interesting, but it was based on a tense March 5th meeting where Mueller told – Bob Mueller told John Dowd, the president’s lawyer, you know, I can always subpoena your guy. And Dowd’s response was if you want him to sit down, give us more information about what you’re going to ask. All of the questions ultimately that the lawyers extrapolated from those little bits of information in those topics, all of the questions that the Trump lawyers wrote down are things that everybody knows have been under investigation. You know, did Manafort have interactions with the Russians? Did you, President Trump, know about that during the campaign? What did you and Michael Flynn talk about before and after you talked to the Russian ambassador, Mr. Kislyak, a conversation you lied about to the FBI? These are all – why did you fire Mr. Comey? Why did you seem to want to fire your attorney general, Jeff Sessions? Ultimately, all of those questions go to two main categories: Do you know about your campaign coordinating with the state of Russia as they sought to interfere in the election? And did you personally try to thwart the probe or know anything about it?
MR. COSTA: When you talk to people close to the president, Julie, do they see that list that The New York Times first reported as too much? Do they want to see it narrowed down if the president ever agrees to do it?
MS. DAVIS: Well, I think part of what – I mean, like Carol said, there are two categories, and I think there’s the collusion category and there’s the obstruction category. There’s a lot of questions in there about potential obstruction, and I think that’s where they are – they think that they may be able to draw a line beyond which they don’t – they don’t think it’s fair for the special counsel to go. That’s also true of the real estate transactions, the private business transactions. I mean, there was a time when President Trump was talking to us and to others about a red line if he ever tried to get – if Mueller ever tried to start to investigate his own personal finances or the Trump Organization. But clearly this is all wrapped up, and you can’t investigate one thing without the other. And what this list of questions shows is the sheer scope of what Mueller is looking at. We’ve known for some time that this was the potential range of issues, but the fact that he is actively pursuing all of those questions really does mean that he is beyond the territory that Trump and his allies feel is appropriate for him to be in. And we are going to hear, I think, a lot more in the coming weeks and months about how this is inappropriate, it’s gone off the rails, it’s run amok. And depending on what happens with these negotiations on the interview, I think that could become a lot more forceful, and they may start – the president may start to want to take more aggressive action, which he’s also been signaling.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of that red line, Giuliani told me this week in an interview that anything with Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, off the table he said. We’ll see about that. He’s still negotiating with Mueller.
But let’s take a little bit of a bigger picture here, Jeremy, because you reported this week that the conservative Christian coalition that helped elect President Trump is planning its largest midterm election mobilization ever, and that the vast majority of Evangelical Christians are digging in for Mr. Trump this week despite the accusations. So even in this political hurricane of Michael Cohen and Bob Mueller and Rudy Giuliani, you had the National Prayer Day at the White House and you have conservative Republican voters rallying around President Trump.
MR. PETERS: That’s exactly right. I will point out that it was – the Stormy Daniels news this week – Rudy Giuliani’s Fox News appearance in which he disclosed that Trump was actually repaying Michael Cohen for the Stormy Daniels payments – that news broke hours before the National Prayer Service began at the White House, an event at which there were dozens of Evangelical Christian leaders who support the president. Not one of them, to my knowledge, expressed any misgivings about President Trump, about this recent disclosure. In fact, when a CNN reporter started doing her standup talking about the Giuliani interview and the Trump payment to repay Cohen for Stormy Daniels, members of the crowd there at the prayer service started shouting her down and telling her what a disgrace she was. So, if anything, I think these accusations have only emboldened the Evangelical right more, saying no, you’re not coming after our guy.
MR. COSTA: Well, that CNN reporter was just doing her job.
MR. PETERS: Right.
MR. COSTA: Kim, when you think about the big picture as well, this was the week unemployment went down to 3.9 percent. The president’s trying to have some kind of historic agreement with North Korea. Will the Russia issue really be a factor in the midterm elections? Is this something the whole country’s talking about when you’re out there reporting?
MS. ATKINS: Well, apparently the president thinks that it does because I think at his – in his comments today at the NRA it really gave a preview of what he’s going to bring to the campaign in the midterms, which he plans to be a constant staple on the stump for the midterms. That’s what he wants to talk about. That’s what he feels like gins up the crowd. And that’s where he got the big reaction. He got a bigger reaction talking about the Mueller probe than he did when he was talking about the Second Amendment at the NRA rally. I think he thinks that’s what resonates with the crowd. Yeah, he wants to say that the job numbers are good. He’ll mention that. He’ll mention any, you know, progress that’s made on North Korea, especially if that spurs a chant of “Nobel!” But I think he thinks that this is good for him politically.
MR. COSTA: And amid all of this we have the battle between the Department of Justice; Mark Meadows, the Republican congressman, who’s close to President Trump. President Trump stepped into it this week, rallying around Meadows and his push for documents. We don’t have time to get into the whole inside baseball fight over document production between DOJ and the House Republicans; we’ll do that maybe another time. But what we’re trying to do, Carol, is understand that Congress is really going after DOJ, and that has implications for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe.
MS. LEONNIG: That’s right, and Mark Meadows has been the leader – the holder of this baton, sort of hitting it on the head of the Justice Department leaders, saying why aren’t you producing these documents that tell us a little bit more about this FBI probe – and particularly the Hillary Clinton probe, which a lot of Republicans are still furious about. They don’t feel that it delved deeply enough, and obviously they don’t feel the right criminal was charged.
However, you know, this is a fascinating moment because the Republicans are also being accused of using their congressional power improperly to shield the president and to get information to sort of leak to the White House. I’m not taking a position on what’s happening here, but it is a fascinating showdown. You’ve never seen anything like it.
MR. COSTA: And Rod Rosenstein has been defiant. Final thoughts, Julie, for tonight about this possible impeachment move against him. He went out in public this week and fought back.
MS. DAVIS: Well, I mean, it was extraordinary. It’s extraordinary, as Carol said, to see Congress taking this kind of position against the Justice Department or the Republicans in Congress. But that prompted a pretty extraordinary statement by the deputy attorney general where he said, you know, we will not be extorted. People are attacking me publicly and privately, and I think by people he is including the president because we’ve heard President Trump go after Rosenstein, somewhat in public but definitely behind closed doors. He’s constantly railing against him and has been pondering whether or not he should get rid of him. Rod Rosenstein basically said, you know, I’m going to do my job; we’re not going to be forced into any result. And so this is – this may end up being a showdown, but you do have the Justice Department sort of staking out its territory and saying come at us, and it’ll be interesting to see what the Republicans end up doing.
MR. COSTA: A showdown. It is certainly a showdown, and it will be a showdown, I’m sure, next week. Stay tuned for that.
And stay tuned for In Principle on most PBS stations. Late-night comedian Bill Maher dishes up a midterm election warning for the Democrats.
MICHAEL GERSON (co-host, In Principle): (From video.) I’m wondering, what do Democrats need to hear most right now going into the midterms?
BILL MAHER (comedian): (From video.) Well, I think they need to hear be afraid, be very afraid.
MR. COSTA: That’s coming up next on In Principle. Check your local listings.
Our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about another White House staffer who may be eyeing the exit soon. You never know. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.