NEW YORK — A series of seemingly authoritative assertions in recent weeks about the shape and scope of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference has helped define it in the public eye, generating countless headlines and cable chyrons about the ongoing saga that has shadowed President Donald Trump’s White House.
But none of those pronouncements about Mueller’s probe were made by Mueller.
They were made by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s attorney, who has used a media blitz to frequently set — and later move — the goalposts of the investigation, making public declarations about the probe to color its perception among voters and lawmakers, all while confident that Mueller will never speak up to correct him.
“Our strategy is: When we weren’t talking, we were losing,” Giuliani told The Associated Press on Thursday from Israel. “Normally in a criminal or civil investigation, the audience would not be the public. But in this one, it is.”
Among Giuliani’s declarations in the last month: that Mueller’s probe will end by Sept. 1 so as not to affect the midterm elections; that an interview with Trump will be limited and take place only under certain conditions; that prosecutors have ruled out indicting a sitting president.
On Thursday, he shifted expectations yet again, suggesting that Trump would not sit for an interview with investigators unless his legal team gets a firsthand look at the documents generated by an FBI informant who had contacts with the celebrity businessman’s Republican presidential campaign in 2016. Previously, Giuliani had said a briefing on the information would suffice.
The special counsel has not responded to any of those claims. Indeed, Mueller has shown no interest in combating the White House on cable or in print; seemingly, the most consistent line in a story about the probe is “A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment for this article.”
A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment for this article.
Some of Giuliani’s statements have been outlandish, and some have arguably been damaging to the president’s cause. But nearly all have been intended to set the public discourse, whether to defend Trump or discredit those investigating him.
Giuliani argued that, as much as the White House was trying to preserve Trump’s presidency by fighting on legal terms, the public relations battleground was just as vital.
The former New York City mayor has repeatedly stated that Mueller won’t criminally charge the president — again, a claim made without rebuttal from the special counsel — and believes that, therefore, the probe will conclude when Mueller delivers a report to the Justice Department, which, in turn, may release it to Congress, whose members could be susceptible to public pressure while debating possible impeachment.
“They have the capacity to report and so do we. We’re reporting in real time as we go,” Giuliani said. “So whose report will the public accept? Who do they believe? We’re looking to win that argument.”
Mueller’s investigation has operated largely in secrecy, with the public getting only glimpses into its operation through witnesses who are questioned or when indictments and guilty pleas are unsealed. There is no evidence that Giuliani’s rhetoric has influenced the special counsel, and Mueller’s silence may be the right approach, according to some experts.
“You never want to wrestle in the mud, and engaging publicly would mean wrestling with Trump and Rudy,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a longtime political media consultant who is now a professor of communications at Boston University. “He shouldn’t respond. There are lawmakers and pundits who will do so on his behalf. And it’s not like he is going to listen to Rudy anyway.”
Giuliani’s outspokenness, when taken in tandem with the president’s powerful Twitter feed, has tried to undercut the credibility of the investigation and muddy the waters, turning the perception of those involved into political actors rather than above-the-fray investigators. He has painted former FBI Director James Comey, a key witness for Mueller, as untrustworthy and has derided the informant as “a spy,” pressuring Republican lawmakers to hold unprecedented briefings on the asset’s classified findings.
The attacks appear to have pushed public opinion on the special counsel. While the majority of Americans believe Trump should cooperate with the probe, recent polling suggests that an increasing number of people have begun to view the investigation as politically motivated.
One of Giuliani’s recent talking points was that Mueller’s team indicated to him that the probe would conclude by the end of the summer in order to not overshadow the midterms, a claim that has echoed across cable. But, when pressed, Giuliani acknowledged that Mueller’s team did not make that commitment and any sort of timeline would depend on whether Trump sat for an interview, something his legal team has discouraged.
“He is setting expectations from the White House’s point of view,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush. “And the primary audience of people who will listen to him are those who could influence Congress.”
Giuliani has known Trump for decades — his bomb-throwing rhetorical style can at times mirror that of the president — and he became an aggressive surrogate for Trump from the early days of his insurgent presidential campaign. Although passed over for secretary of state, his preferred Cabinet position, he joined the legal team in April.
His in-your-face strategy has yielded some missteps.
He drew the president’s ire when he contradicted Trump’s earlier statements by claiming the president knew about hush money payments from his personal attorney Michael Cohen to porn actress Stormy Daniels, who has said she had sex with a married Trump in 2006. Giuliani received a torrent of criticism for suggesting this week that he doesn’t respect Daniels “the way I respect a career woman or a woman of substance or a woman who isn’t going to sell her body for sexual exploitation.”
On Thursday, first lady Melania Trump’s spokeswoman upbraided the attorney for recently invoking her name while discussing Daniels, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that Giuliani does not speak for the administration on foreign policy matters after the former mayor weighed in on the upcoming North Korea summit.
Trump has told allies that, despite some mistakes, he is glad to have Giuliani onboard as an attack dog and dominating news coverage. Giuliani did not apologize Thursday for the inflammatory remarks.
“We need to drive the story,” Giuliani said. “You have to go on and be willing to take the arrows, especially if you’re going to deliver more arrows.”
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