The Memo: Trump's legal moves roil Washington

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBubba Wallace to be driver of Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin NASCAR team Graham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Southwest Airlines, unions call for six-month extension of government aid MORE’s whirlwind moves on the legal front are causing turmoil, creating consternation among some Republicans even as other supporters embrace the newly aggressive approach.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), who joined the president’s personal legal team about two weeks ago, has been at the center of many of the recent storms.

Trump praised Giuliani as a “great guy” to reporters at the White House on Friday and said that the former mayor had correctly concluded that the investigations into him were a “witch hunt.” 

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But he also delivered a rebuke of some of Giuliani’s comments, saying that he was still “learning the subject matter” and would in time “get his facts straight.” 

Those comments appeared to relate to Giuliani’s statements about the $130,000 payment Trump attorney Michael Cohen made to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. The payment was apparently intended to buy her silence over an alleged 2006 affair with the president.  

The administration has denied an affair took place. 

Giuliani surprised many White House officials, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, when he said during a Wednesday evening interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News that Trump had compensated Cohen for that payment.

On Air Force One last month, Trump had told reporters that he had been unaware of the Cohen payment and did not know where Cohen had gotten the money. 

On Friday, Giuliani issued a clarification of those remarks, though it seemed mostly to stick to the central points he had made during the interview.

“The right hand doesn’t seem to know what the left hand is doing,” said Peter Wehner, a frequent Trump critic who has served in three Republican administrations. “There doesn’t seem to be any coherent strategy. There just seems to be nihilism.” 

Some Trump allies defended Giuliani’s performance.  

Michael Caputo, a longtime friend of the president, said, “At first when I watched Rudy’s interview [with Hannity], I was kinda palms-up about it. But then as I put on the lens of Bob Mueller’s interest in this issue, it all became very clear. This is off the table now.” 

In a series of media interviews since Wednesday, including with The Hill, Giuliani has taken a hard-line approach to the investigations swirling around Trump. 

In a Thursday interview with The Hill, Giuliani alleged there has been “gross misconduct by the government” in those matters.

Giuliani also told The Hill that the president had been aware in general terms that he was going to present the version of events that he spoke about on “Hannity.” 

He said that he had spoken with Trump “several times” since the Fox News interview. Asked if the president was content with his performance, Giuliani responded: “Yep.”

The former New York City mayor also said, referring to the Daniels issue, that he had told Trump that “not necessarily [Wednesday] night, but at some opportune moment, we could get it beyond us. We got it beyond us.” 

Some disagree, including Daniels’s attorney, Michael Avenatti. 

Referring to Giuliani’s insistence that no campaign finance laws had been infringed by the payment to Daniels, Avenatti told The Hill, “Mr. Giuliani has a fundamental lack of understanding of campaign finance law. He seems to believe that, if campaign funds were not used, there can be no violation. That simply is not the law.”

More broadly, Avenatti asserted that Giuliani’s comments were “very damaging” to both Trump and Cohen. 

Some sources in Trump’s orbit believe that, even if the specifics of Giuliani’s claims can be problematic, he is pursuing the more combative tactics that Trump has long desired.

In this telling, Trump’s instincts were previously restrained by lawyers, including John Dowd and Ty Cobb, who urged a more conciliatory approach toward special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE

Dowd has left the president’s team, and Cobb will depart from his role at the White House at the end of the month.

The addition of Giuliani is the most obvious emblem of the more new approach, which some people — not all of them critics of the president — believe is aimed at damaging Mueller’s reputation and laying a predicate for Trump to refuse an interview with the special counsel’s team.

In his remarks to reporters before departing for Dallas on Friday, Trump said he would “override” his lawyers to sit for an interview with Mueller’s team but only if he thought it would be “fair.” Given his propensity for deriding the probe, it seems questionable whether the fairness threshold would ever be met. 

Critics of Trump — Republicans like Wehner among them — are appalled by what they see as an amateurish approach to the complex legal challenges that face the president.

“The Mueller team is an extraordinary collection of legal and prosecutorial talent. And on the other side you have this cast of misfits,” said Wehner. “The people surrounding Trump are such amateurs and so ham-handed. This is like the Golden State Warriors going against a junior varsity team.” 

Even those who were more circumspect suggested that Giuliani’s efforts were misfiring.

Mark Zaid, a nonpartisan D.C. attorney, said that he often found criticism of legal strategies unfair, since outside observers often have an imperfect understanding of both the facts and the tactics. 

“An attorney serves the interests of the client,” he said. “If President Trump is happy and content with what Rudy Giuliani is doing, then it’s all well and good.” But, he added, “from the outside, it doesn’t look that way.” 

Zaid added that Giuliani was much more of a Beltway figure than an attorney in the traditional sense.

“He is obviously trying to use that skill set to influence what is occurring,” Zaid said. “That might be a good strategy depending on what their objective is. But right now, it looks like it is causing more trouble than it’s worth.”

But now the question is where things go from here. 

“We’re all fighting battles, but I love fighting these battles,” Trump told a National Rifle Association forum in Dallas on Friday afternoon.  

Apparently referring to the Mueller probe, he added, “It’s really a disgrace.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.