On Wednesday night, the news media once again went into full hyperventilation mode as President Donald Trump’s new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, appeared to have a meltdown live on Fox News. Among the many seemingly nutty things that Giuliani said to his pal Sean Hannity, him suddenly changing the president’s story on whether he reimbursed Michael Cohen for the $130,000 he paid a porn star to keep silent during the 2016 campaign provoked the most excited reaction within the media (as of Thursday night, Mediaite has posted 31 separate articles provoked by Giuliani interviews in the previous 24 hours).
Most interestingly, this story was one of the very rare Trump scandals which even caused super-friendly Fox News to, at times, temporarily forget that they are now effectively state-run. Laura Ingraham, Andrew Napolitano, Neil Cavuto, and even the especially sycophantic Fox and Friends, all expressed various levels of concern over Giuliani admitting that Trump had previously lied when he said, as president, that he hadn’t reimbursed Cohen for having killed the Stormy Daniels story.
As I watched the coverage unfold on Wednesday night, my initial gut reaction was that the media was grossly overreacting. After all, that’s what the modern media does best, especially with all things Trump. And we already know that when it comes to him, events which would ordinarily be big deals usually turn out to have no impact whatsoever.
There was no doubt that Giuliani seemed unhinged at times — with his admissions that Trump fired James Comey over Russia, and that the president’s son-in-law is “disposable” being particularly bizarre. As I watched the comments about the Cohen payment over and over, however, it began to become clear that Giuliani wasn’t really saying—or at least meaning—what the media wanted him to have said.
Mostly because he, perhaps on purpose, was not being at all direct in what he was saying, and partly because it seems he has lost his verbal fastball, Giuliani certainly did say that Trump reimbursed Cohen. But it seemed to me that this was not really what he meant. Instead, I kept focusing on Giuliani’s unartful mention of a $35,000 “retainer” which Trump paid to Cohen.
Because Giuliani was so inarticulate in the Hannity interview, it wasn’t obvious that this “retainer” was per month, meaning that during the campaign Cohen obviously would have been paid more than $130,000 by Trump, apparently for “fixing” services. Now that we know that, it puts a very different light on what likely is really happening here.
This became clear when Giuliani, in interviews on Thursday, made several statements which altered his story from Wednesday night’s Hannity interview. Now he is saying that this was a “reimbursement,” but one which Trump didn’t know what it was for, and probably didn’t even remember providing. For Trump’s part, he, in tweet he obviously didn’t write, further clarified his current story in this direction while, laughably, still claiming to have never had an affair with the woman to whom his lawyer paid $130,000 after taking out a bank loan to do so.
So here’s what Giuliani and Trump appeared (there is an indication this morning that the president may be backing away from it) to be really saying: Cohen was paid during the campaign for general “fixing” services and that part of his “retainer” was a “budget” for paying people off to silence them. In their minds, this gets Cohen off the hook for a campaign finance violation because he was effectively “reimbursed,” while also allowing Trump to claim that he was in the dark on the details because Cohen was essentially working on his own.
The best analysis of this topic that I have seen came via this Bloomberg column.
Now, to be clear, I think this scenario is absurd and has clearly been reverse engineered by Giuliani as a way of achieving the least bad outcome for his client. Donny Deutsch, who I don’t consider particularly credible, is now claiming Cohen told him that Giuliani is indeed making this story up. There is just no way Trump, whom I don’t believe is nearly rich enough to not care about how $130,000 is spent, allowed this to happen without his knowledge and without Stormy Daniels having a legitimate reason to be kept silent.
While there certainly are potential legal perils for Trump under this new narrative, however, I don’t think they are nearly as dire as the media’s almost-always-wrong conventional wisdom would suggest. Instead, I see all of this as more likely being in the category of crazy… like a fox.
Yes, another other president would pay a severe price for having originally lied about the “reimbursement” and desperately clinging to the ridiculous story that he didn’t really have an affair with a porn star to whom he paid $130,000. Heck, the overt use of mob tactics here, like something right out of an episode of The Sopranos, would normally cripple a presidency.
Trump has correctly determined, however, that his “Cult 45” fans simultaneously don’t care if he lies and yet they will still believe anything he says. They also like the image of Trump as a mob boss who gets things done. Trump will lose almost no support over this development.
On the benefits side, the motive here seems to be helping relieve Cohen of concerns over having broken campaign finance laws because if he was “reimbursed” then it seems he is in the clear. This theoretically might have lessened the chances that Cohen flips on Trump regarding other matters which are likely far more significant than the campaign finance issues which the president may now face (and surely thinks, thanks to the very muddied waters, that he can easily beat) because of his new story.
I have often mocked Trump supporters for wrongly thinking that Trump is a genius who is playing eight-dimensional chess when he is usually really engaged in a child’s game of “Candyland.” Even though there are already signs that the Giuliani’s gambit is falling apart, it wasn’t nearly as crazy as the media made it out to be.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.